Recently I reviewed Surface Tension, an intriguing post-apocalyptic creator-owned comic from Titan. I was intrigued by the comic, so creator Jay Gunn and I hooked up on skype for this very interesting interview that looks at the creative process, the power of comics, and what it takes to create your own color comic from beginning to end.
Jason Gunn: Well for the past two years it’s been… I’m sure you are used to this from talking to other artists and writers. You just become a hermit.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: I can appreciate that.
Gunn: But I am coming towards the end of Surface Tension now, as the publisher wanted me to finish all of the issues before it was released, which I think is quite unusual in the comic world. But they didn’t want any potential huge delays between issues. They wanted to keep to their monthly schedule. I think they might have potentially been burned b y other experiences in the past. I’m not sure.
CB: That’s definitely happened, especially with Titan Books. They’ve had the experience a few times.
CB: With creators especially who end up just moving on to something else. They get a better offer part way through the project and move on up. Well, why don’t we start with do you have an elevator pitch, so to speak, for Surface Tension?
Gunn: The elevator pitch is The Walking Dead meets Princess Mononoke via Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That’s the general marketing way of describing the book.
The synopsis is – “99% of the world’s population has been inflicted with a deadly virus that caused them to walk out to sea, the pandemic became known as ‘the sea-sickness.’ The sea is now hostile for any survivors, populated with strange prehistoric sea creatures. No one has ever returned from the sea until one year later. Two survivors are found by an immune island community, the two survivors have no memory of the past year and of where they have come from. The survivors are taken ashore but they have not returned alone!”
CB: What is your key idea that you are trying to get out first? Was it the survivors? Was it the ecological catastrophe? What was the thing that was particularly interesting as you started working on this?
Gunn: When I was young, very, very young, my family lived in a village near to a very big chemical plant. And one terrible day this chemical plant exploded. At that time in Britain, it was one of the biggest industrial accidents that had happened. I think there have been bigger ones since. But at the time it was a big story. I have a vague memory of everything in my parent’s house rattling and shaking and cracks appearing in windows and things like that. And my mum being a little bit freaked out because my father worked in the steel works situated near to the chemical works. She was very worried about what happened to him, but he was okay.
It must have been months later, my parents drove the family car when it was safe to do so, though the disaster zone. I remember seeing these huge twisted wrecks of the chemical plant. And it had also destroyed and damaged the surrounding village and houses that now stood abandoned. I remember being fascinated by all of these empty buildings and seeing things like furniture, blankets and clothes strewn around the gardens and in the street. The images of that seared landscape and deserted streets seared their way into my mind.
But I also remembered that nature was beginning to grow back, grass and weeds were growing through the cracks and amongst the broken machinery. It was like a very strange thing for a child to see. And it must have lodged itself in my subconscious as I then became very, very fascinated by Godzilla-style movies (laughs). Anything where there was some kind of environmental disaster scenario I was there, if it was Godzilla or Daleks invading London then I would be drawn to that type of imagery.
I guess when I wanted to write a story, I wanted to write about… You know, they say write about things you know. And this has always been a little bit of a fascination with me. And recently we had Fukushima and those kinds of events in Japan and around the world. We’ve had huge oil slicks off the U.S. Coast. Wasn’t it six, seven years ago the B.P. oil spill? I wanted to use that as a starting point. I’ve tried to stay away from other books that might have had an ecological theme to try to do my own thing. I did a lot of research on the Internet about ‘unnatural disasters’ and it made for really incredibly depressing reading. If you delve to deep into research regarding out impact on the environment and where we’re heading you think, “Oh, my god, we’re doomed. We’re doomed!”
Gunn: Then you read about those famous rock star types that talk about ‘saving the planet.’ You start to think is it some kind of vanity or ego at work, maybe it’s hubris on their part? The planet will survive without us, we’ll mess things up but it will go on, nature doesn’t need us. I wanted to introduce that into one of the characters who is this very idealistic scientist. He thinks he can save the world, he wants to do the right thing but he’s also driven by ego. And his girlfriend has lost her faith in humanity. She thinks it is all heading for disaster, “We’re not going to help things. Maybe the planet would be better without us.” And this story starts with that kind of conversation between these two characters, who is right and who is wrong. And if you did have a binary way “saving the planet,” what would that lead to? Would we be taken out of the equation? If one of these characters had the power to do this, would they press that button or not? That was the starting point, the debate at the heart of the story. Obviously I have to make it an entertaining and thrilling story and not get too portentous with the theme!
CB: You don’t want to make it sound like it is a preachy story, which it is not.
Gunn: I had pages of dialogue that went into many of the factual details of the sort of damage that an oil spill would do to the environment. The senior editor at Titan told me, “You’ve got to be very careful that doesn’t come across as some kind of like ecological manifesto.” We pruned some of those aspects back a little bit to pay lip service to it. I think the visuals alone sum up the horror of the scenario. Otherwise that sort of scientific exposition bogs down the drama as well. You want to keep it moving at all times.
CB: I think we’re all aware that we’re screwing up the planet. But to use it as the basis of an entertaining story, that’s really what the function is of literature and especially comic’s literature. I mean, when you look at something like The Massive that takes the great ecological catastrophe and has it be the background and key point of the story, but also it is very much about the characters and the mysteries of the world we are in. That’s where the sweet spot is, where it has a resonance and you think and you learn, but at the same you have an entertaining experience.
Gunn: Yes, I tried to purposely avoid The Massive because when I first started writing Surface Tension, which was just over two years ago, I got wind of the synopsis of The Massive. And I thought, “Oh, no, someone might be doing something similar.” I remember nervously picking up a copy in a comic’s shop. And I flipped through it, but I didn’t read. And I thought, “Well, tonally it doesn’t quite feel like what I am doing. It looks like a very different take. I don’t think that anyone is writing the story that I am telling.”
I put it back on the shelf because you don’t want pollute yourself with other people’s ideas that might use a similar themes. Otherwise it can infect the way you write and think about things and my take on this theme is a very personal one to me.
CB: You can get into this unintentional, not plagiarism, but influence anyway.
Gunn: I was very, very mindful to avoid something that you noted in your review of Surface Tension. You said that you were sick of the post-apocalyptic scenarios in comics and I guess that also includes TV and films.
CB: Walking Dead is such a pervasive thing these days.
Gunn: Yes. It’s been very successful and everyone’s looking to cash in on that success. “What’s the next Walking Dead?”
CB: The idea of the fallen world is so popular. One of the things that struck me about the book is it has this very English pastoral side to it also.
Gunn: That was really important to me. I didn’t want to necessarily write a story about scientists and the military or any kind of official body. I mean, there are two scientist characters in the story, but I wanted to remove them from that world as quickly as possible. And I wanted to make it about people who don’t really even think about these subjects. The islanders are removed from big cities or big pockets of society. I had become quite fascinated by the English Channel Islands. They’re these pastoral throwbacks to an earlier time in history, fiercely independent. I don’t know if you know this, but in World War II the British Channel Islands were the only part of Britain that was occupied by the Nazis in World War II.
The Nazis built these great big sea defences around the islands, the Atlantic wall, because they thought that Churchill would want to recapture these islands because it was a matter of pride for him. And in fact they essentially abandoned and were the last land to be freed from the Nazis after World War II. The Germans had ring fenced these islands. And even when Germany was losing the war in World War II, they stubbornly held out on these islands as long as possible. The islanders were starving and the soldiers were starving and they were literally trapped on these islands. Nobody could leave the islands without being shot or branded a deserter.
I did a lot of research in how they tried to farm during this period and what they ate. They couldn’t really fish necessarily and most of their farmers had been deported. They ate all the animals on the island, birds and pets. I wanted to use that research and information as a backstory to Surface Tension. Obviously it’s not a World War II story, but I did quite a bit of research on how the island could function. I spent a lot of time on the islands and talked to a lot of locals. They were quite recently, I think about six, seven years ago, actually feudal states – they didn’t operate in the traditional way that we think of as being democratic but they were rather happy with their way of life.
Have you seen The Wicker Man? Each island would have a Bailiff or a sort of Laird who would govern the island. My time on the island of Sark (one of the smaller Channel Islands) did remind me of The Wicker Man!
CB: I almost was fascinated enough by the island itself. I think there is a story there outside of the ecological catastrophe.
Gunn: Absolutely, yes. And they have no cars on Sark; everyone gets around on horse or tractors. And I remember thinking, “If there was a zombie invasion this would be a great place to live as they’re already used to being relatively self sufficient!” And you could hold out there for a while. There’s quite a bit of food and there’s a lot of sea between you and the land, of course you’d have to farm the land and fish the sea and it would be hard work! But if it was the sea itself that was trapping you on the island, then there’s a whole different story there. How long could you hold out?
CB: I guess in effect the sea is trapping them on the island, too. I mean, with the giant sea serpents and the other creatures in the ocean, these people really are trapped.
Gunn: Yes. There could be pockets of other survivors dotted about the world, but we don’t quite know this just yet. For all intents and purposes this is the last pocket of humanity.
And there’s also the mythological creatures, the selkie, the little creatures that live on the beaches that are referred to in the first episode. The real Channel Islands are steeped in Neolithic history. I visited a few burial grounds on Sark and spent some time chatting to a local archaeologist who had researched Neolithic Dolmans and Menhirs on the islands. I incorporated some of this ancient history into the story – the standing stones and so on. They have a large part to play later on and there’s a reason why they are referred to the ‘selkie.’ Selkie are Irish mythological creatures that are half-human, half-sea creature.
CB: That whole side of it is very interesting because you are not just doing this post-apocalyptic thing. Also you bring in the religion. You bring in the selkies as you imagine them. This is definitely a world that you’ve thought about a lot.
Gunn: It was very important to get the world building just right. That was one thing that I said to my editor at Titan – I am really interested in the background details, these details don’t necessarily move the plot forward in any kind of action sense but they are important to the texture of the story. I really enjoy films, books, and even comics that take their time to tell a story. I enjoy the slow moments where characters sit around chatting and contemplating events, you build their world view. Sci-fi from the 1970s was very good at doing that because they couldn’t afford to have great big explosions and action scenes. A lot of the world building came through conversation or news reports. You have to get the balance right.
It was really important to introduce to the reader the background of the world, to get a sense of place before everything starts kicking off in later episodes and the pace starts to speed up and becomes more action-oriented. I wanted to really take my time. There are important plot details in the backgrounds – in one scene you can see a map of the island and its location in regards to the other islands.
And I really appreciate the Japanese who are very good at world building in their stories, sometimes the world building is just as important as the drama, it is something that Westerners can find boring(laughs)! An example, someone walking through a landscape is very important to them in their storytelling, it shows the relationship that the character has with the world. All our relationships and views are formed by the environment that we are born into or live in. You need to establish a character’s place in the world. And I wanted to use quite wide shots of the landscape with these characters quite small in the background, trying to represent the fact that they are quite alone and something has gone wrong with nature. Hayao Miyazaki was quite a touchstone for my way of thinking about character and environments.
CB: When you talk about people walking quietly through the landscapes and stuff, that definitely reminds me of a Miyazaki film and how he slowly uses the people’s relationship with their environment to really build the story in a way that really feels very satisfying.
Gunn: Yes, I love those little moments. I cherish those moments in Hayao Miyazaki films, something like My neighbour Totoro is all texture and very little story but it works all the better for it – it’s a very unique way of telling a story, it’s all about how it ‘feels.’ I wanted to capture a little bit of that feeling with Surface Tension – the feel. However I didn’t want it to look like a pastiche of manga styles or anime, that kind of a thing I don’t really like.
When I was very young, my folks spent a lot of time by the coast. And I would be dragged along with them when all I wanted to do was stay at home and play on my Spectrum computer or something like that, I didn’t appreciate the world. And I’d buy lots of comics from the newsagent in the seaside town. And these usually ended up being either quite schlocky, pulpy horror comics or World War II comics. And I would sit on the beach in the sun reading war comics and horror comics and imagine that the seaside town is overrun by giant crabs and things like that (laughter)! Whenever I think of horror or war comics, I always think of sunny landscapes, beaches and nature! I don’t necessarily think of dark, grimy urban settings. Again, I wanted to put some of that into the work, I wanted it to look and feel very different to other ‘post apocalyptic’ comics that are out there.
CB: That’s a good point. I am paging through your preview pages now and there’s a lot of bright colors in the background. There’s the battle in I think the swimming pool area. And the backgrounds are pastels and these creatures are attacking. It is a vicious battle, but there’s this interesting type of juxtaposition.
Gunn: The great thing about U.K. coastal towns is that they were very, very popular in the Victorian and Edwardian times, that time of Empire. That’s where people would go and have holidays. They built these great grandiose halls and swimming halls and bath houses, very ornate buildings. And they are all falling into disrepair now because most people leave the U.K. when they go on holiday. These towns are falling into disrepair and they’re crumbling. But they make great environments for setting stories in because their opulent facades are crumbling due to economic recession. Again, I wanted to try and capture that in the story, that sort of colourful, faded remnants of a past era, which in a way is how humankind could become in the story, even now we’re grappling with a global economic recession, which is great for nature!
I wanted to key a little bit into those subconscious images. Another really good touch point for the kind of imagery I wanted to capture in the story is the Philip Kaufman Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the ‘70s remake, which is one of my favorite films. That was very, very cleverly shot in the way they photographed the film. Setting the story about an invasion of vegetable pod people in San Franciso, the home of the flower power movement and hippies and the kind of alternative psychotherapy that was popular at the time. And the fact that all the streets are on a slope or an incline added to an off kilter visual style. That film made quite mundane everyday scenes ripe with hidden menace and paranoia, a back garden or a green house suddenly becomes a place of nightmares. Even dustbin trucks took on a sense of menace. And there’s that strange pyramid style building. I’m not sure what it is called these days. The Transatlantic Tower?
CB: It used to be the Transamerica Pyramid, I believe.
Gunn: Transamerica, yes, that’s it.
CB: I think it still is.
Gunn: The way they composed shots with that tower always in the background – like an all seeing sentinel, that was what gave me the idea for the coral sentinels in Surface Tension. There is a scene in which Nimoy’s character (may he rest in peace) and Donald Sutherland are having a discussion about the potential invasion and there is the Tansamerica tower in the background of the shot that acts as a device to separate the two characters, it is a very clever subliminal message telling us that Nimoy is no longer human, he’s one of the pod people. It’s a very clever film – a master class in subliminal imagery and sound. I spent a long time analyzing that film. Again, I wanted to capture some of what makes that film unique in Surface Tension by putting the strange coral structures in the background so you’re always being reminded that there’s something not quite right in these idyllic scenes. There’s something always kind of background detail that’s not quite right. Again, that film was a very, very good reference point.
CB: Your art is very detailed. I think you saw my review; I referenced George Pérez, which may not be as accurate as I thought. But the style is very much along those lines where you are a guy who draws the teeth exactly right, for example, inside the monster’s mouth. Where did that style come from, first of all?
Gunn: I’m really, really bad because I could make my job so much easier by making things simpler… In your review you mentioned George Perez? I didn’t actually know who George Pérez was, so I had to Google him (laughs).
CB: Oh, funny.
Gunn: I’m not very clued up on the big American comic artists of superhero books. My style, I think, is more influenced by Europe or Japan. There is a Japanese artist-writer called Jiro Taniguchi. I’m not sure if you are familiar with his work?
One of my favorite comic books, and I have many, many favorite comic books, is a book called The Walking Man. It’s about a Japanese salary man who decides, “Oh, I’m going to walk a different way to work today.” He takes these different routes through the Japanese city he lives in, and it’s about him discovering new sights and experiences. He might climb a tree to get a different view of the city or play with a dog in the street. It’s all about texture and seeing the world. It’s all about background details.
They’re really beautifully composed scenes full of lovely moments. Very, very slow moving, but they are wonderful representations of the world, it actually changed the way I saw the world after reading that book. So he was a very big inspiration. I guess I am definitely influenced by a lot of European artists, people like Moebius and the people who do work on the Jodorowsky books, Ladrönn, those types of people.
CB: Ladrönn’s work on The Incal book is incredible.
Gunn: I recently bought the Humanoids reprint, the oversized one.
CB: It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?
Gunn: It’s amazing. Really good.
CB: The depth of field in that book blew me away. I could stare at those pages for hours.
Gunn: Absolutely, yes. And I do that. Sometimes when I show people my comic they flick through it really fast, they just want to read the words, and I think but half of the story is in the visuals – I shouldn’t write words, just make a silent comic (laughs)!
I’m the kind of person who will linger for hours on a page, taking all that detail in and thinking, “Wow, how long did it take this guy to draw this?” I do know how long it takes to draw, it takes too long! Wow, it takes a long time (laughs).
CB: Did it really take you two years to create these five issues?
Gunn: Each issue is much bigger than a normal U.S.-sized comic. So, for example, the first issue is forty pages. In total- I did a page count earlier today, and the five issues are the equivalent of eight (22 page) standard U.S. comics. I basically created way too much work for myself, but you guys will be getting a really good deal. I’m not getting any more money for the extra pages. So, yeah, it’s almost around eight standard twenty-two page issues for the five issues of Surface Tension.
As this was my first job writing and drawing a comic I was learning a lot, it was a steep learning curve. I would be hard on myself and go back and rewrite scenes or discuss with my editor changing certain plot points. And I had the luxury of time to a certain extent because Titan wanted all of the episodes finished, so it meant I could go back to the first issue and alter things and change things. A lot of people aren’t fortunate enough to be in that position. It helped me.
The downside is it meant I could procrastinate slightly too long, I wanted the book to be the best book I could make at that time. And also I was coloring it as well, so I was penciling, inking, coloring, writing, self-editing everything! And then I subsequently learned from my comic book pals that they actually had people helping them on their books! Nobody told me that some artists employ flat-out artists doing the flat colors or helping them do certain things on the page art. I was doing EVERYTHING myself. For better or for worse, you can blame me for every single detail in Surface Tension! It was a grand folly (laughs)!
CB: I’ve got to say, one of the things that we do on my site is review a lot of self-published and creator-driving comics. A lot of what see unfortunately is amateurish or not fully thought out or extremely derivative. It’s not common for us to run into something that is as specific and unique and well crafted as this. I mean, I keep coming back to the world building, which often is the slowest part of the process. People often want to jump right into the story and assume a certain amount of knowledge. But you really spent on this.
Gunn: Thank you. I absolutely spent too much time on it. I’m sure some people will just flick through it, read the story and move on. My hope is that some will cherish it and love the texture of the story. Hopefully it will inspire them to do their own comic. My prize possessions are the comic books that have lovely world building and attention to detail in the page art. Those are the ones I go back to and enjoy just drinking in the drawings.
CB: I can appreciate that. I think that might be right there what I respond to the most in Surface Tension, the world building aspect of it. I’m not sure which cover this is for that you included in the PDF of the creature with the glowing eyes-
Gunn: Oh, yes, yes. That’s the cover for issue 3.
CB: – Imperiling I guess the pony.
Gunn: One of the horse and carts or ‘pony and trap’ as they are sometimes known.
CB: I like there’s a whole world in that one image. For one thing, that monster has an extremely large amount of detail applied to it. The colors are obviously very meaningful and significant to it. And then there’s the horse-drawn carriage and what that means. And the people in their relatively modern dress and what that means. It implies a whole world in one image.
Gunn: I think if the scenario in Surface Tension that we’d quickly de-evolve into like a medieval state of living. I don’t think our modern way of living would last too long. And I did actually read that petrol actually goes off. It doesn’t last that long. You can’t really store it for long periods of time.
CB: If you have like a lawnmower and you store gasoline over the winter time, it will separate.
Gunn: Yes, yes. When I stayed on the island of Sark I thought I was going see lots of solar panels and wind generators and things like that so they could self-generate green natural power. But I saw nothing of the sort and I was taken aback. I wanted to know where they got their electricity from and I asked to have a look around their power plant. And I went into this very little power station and it was all still powered by big barrels of gasoline! I thought, “Wow, they must go through a lot of gasoline quickly.” They have no solar panels or wind turbines or anything like that. Even the boats along the river near to where I live are loaded with solar panels and wind turbines. On Sark they get most of their water from bore holes on the island, so they have quite a lot of water so they could drink.
Their fuel supply wouldn’t last very long; they’d quickly soon have to rely on the horses and candles! And obviously the downside of relying on horses is you might eventually start using them for food as well. Resources are going to dwindle quite quickly. Even with their farming methods, it would be pretty tough going. The winters would be very harsh on those islands so they would have to get off at some point or it wouldn’t look very rosy for them.
Gunn: And the big creature you mentioned that’s chasing the horse, that creature goes through a lot of evolutionary stages through the story. It appears right at the end of the first issue and it’s more humanoid when it first comes out of the sea. I was kicking myself for making that thing look so detailed because every time I had to draw it in action scenes, it was “Why, why do I put all this detail into it?
CB: I can imagine.
Gunn: I’d look at my anime art books and think, “Oh, they don’t look that detailed.” But obviously when they are animating a movie they look very detailed as they’re moving. It’s the animation that makes them look detailed, but they are quite basic looking drawings. I think I’ll learn for next time – make things simpler.
CB: You can’t create a world like Big Hero 6 that you need to redraw every time. The computers have to do it for you.
Gunn: Well, one that secret that I’ll let you in for is one of the reasons why I wanted to set it on a coastal island is at least one of the views is just the sea (laughs). So I could cheat and think, “I’ll have this character facing the coastal side of this shot because I don’t to draw lots of pictures.” You might notice there’s quite a few blue skies in certain things where I’ve thought I need to get this page done.
CB: Well, you don’t always have to draw all the backgrounds.
Gunn: No, no, but people respond really positively to backgrounds, and I say, they are a big part of the story. I sent the first issue to a writer that I admire in the U.K., Pat Mills, who is the creator of 2000 A.D. and lots of well-known strips in the U.K.: Nemesis the Warlock, Slaine, and a World War I comic book, Charley’s War. He commented that it was good to see backgrounds again and that backgrounds have become almost a dying art in comics, partly because of obviously the economics of drawing pages. You’ll have your money shot of the city scene, but then the artist will move on from that and the background will become looser and looser. For me, partly because I was a former art director at Sony for many years, I studied film design and cinematography.
Gunn: I was always interested in the environment being a character in the story or the games we were making. Environments were very, very close to me. Architecture was very close to me as a subject because it says so much about the atmosphere and the tone and even the characters that are in those environments. You can dress or color or light an environment in a certain way that will obviously help with the mood or the psychological state of the character. If you start analyzing film design and architecture and photography, there’s lot of quite nice little tricks going on there that can be quite complicated to actually work into a story, but are very important nonetheless.
CB: You’ve really given this a lot of thought. It’s fun to talk to someone who has really thought about his approach thoroughly.
Gunn: Thank you very much. I’m glad you appreciate it. I was very happy with your review because of the fat that in your review you picked up on some of the small details that I put into the story. For example, the religious aspect of that community, what that sort of event would do to them? If I ever did a sequel, which obviously is too soon to think about, that would be an aspect I would like to explore in their new world. One thing I wanted to escape from with post-apocalyptic genre, which I do enjoy, is always focusing on this torture, raping, murderous aspect of the post-apocalyptic world.
Gunn: I wanted to make Surface Tension to be little bit more uplifting, about hope and second chances. I don’t want to spoil things for the future issues, but I wanted to have some light and hope in the story. It was important that it wasn’t grim, in many ways I wished the book skewed a little younger as I think young people would get a lot out of the book. I’m not interested in building up characters just to repeatedly knock them down again. I find that it becomes a little bit like, “Where am I going with this story? How is it going to end?” It is very important to me to differentiate myself from other post-apocalyptic scenarios that may be out there in the world of comics. There’s enough horror on the news at the moment, I don’t want to read about it in comics.
CB: Now as you were saying, when the sun shines in this world, it’s not all black and white, mud and grit, and people shooting each other.
Gunn: Partly because in the U.K. we don’t have many guns as well.
CB: Maybe that is very American.
Gunn: We have shotguns for farming and things like that. But people just stab each other here!
CB: Now that you’re finally done, now that everything is all scheduled, what are you thinking about working on next?
Gunn: Well, I am about to very soon wrap up on Surface Tension and I have been incredibly busy with very little free time. I have a few pitches lined up for future stories that I’d like to get off the ground. I want to keep making books that mean something to me. Really it comes down to how well this book does. I’m totally new to this industry so everything about it is new and shiny to me, so I’ve got that very eager enthusiastic, “Oh, yeah, this is great. I love it! I want to keep doing this!” We’ll see, it all comes down to economics in the end.
CB: That’s a perfect place to end an interview.
Gunn: Great. Thanks for the opportunity, it was great to chat to you. I hope that Surface Tension continues to surprise you and your readers.