Leibel, Quantz, & Ryan: Deconstructing the Syndrome

A comics interview article by: Charles Webb
With Archaia’s Syndrome hitting shelves last month and already making a buzz, Charles Webb got the chance to catch up with Blake Leibel, Daniel Quantz, and R.J. Ryan to talk comics, sociopathy, and much more.


Charles Webb: How did the project come about?

Dan Quantz: Blake and Lawrence came to us with an idea that at the time was going to be a television idea. They approached me and Josh with the idea of writing it, but we just weren't ready to do that. Maybe you guys can talk about how it became a comic from there.

R.J. Ryan: In that first conversation with Blake, the question was, "How do you treat a sociopath or serial killer. How do you approach that as a medical problem?" And at the end of this first meeting, the one word we kept saying over and over again was "untreatable." But the conclusion we arrived at is that this is an almost impossible medical problem.

How could the story solve that problem? So we had to leap into the realm of sci-fi to do it, but in a way that's grounded and specific to the problem, which is, "Why does the brain make terrible, awful decisions for a tiny slice of the population?" And as we went further down the road of television there was just stuff that we wanted to do that we couldn't. If you've read the book, there's a large-scale simulation being used for a clinical trial and that's not really practical on television.

The crazier the ideas got that were being passed around, the closer it got to what it is now, which is this sort of fully self-contained graphic novel. It wasn't really until last May that Blake brought up the idea of doing it as a comic book. And Dan and I had enough experience in comics to see that opportunity of working with a company like Fantasy Prone. It was a four month evolution, I think, from an idea to someone saying "let's do the comic book with Archaia."

Blake Leibel: And one of the most important things about the science in it is that although it feels like science fiction it's all based on real brain scans that were developed about 26 months ago. And they used them in the most simple application in how they apply to us in video games and comics. They put people in these rooms and had them watch something like Toy Story and watched what parts of the brain would light up and at which times, to see how happy and sad some scenes made them. In the future, they're estimating movies will be a series of trailers that are always popping the mind. So although this seems inconceivable, all of this is very realistic.

The applications on a metropolis-level or on an airplane would be very, very valuable if you were to sell that type of information. I digress, but it's very important that it doesn't seem like this is supernatural.
Because if someone had the right amount of money, this is something that could potentially be pulled off.

Ryan: That's a big thing for me, Dan, and Blake: that everything in the book is theoretically possible with today's technology. It's the same thing as looking at a Batman comic -- you could be Batman if you approach something like that with the same level of will.

Webb: A major part of the story was the intersection between science and entertainment. The lead doctor on the project, Dr. Chitel, has brought in artists, actors, set designers to make this project work. Do you think something similar (but less insidious) is being done today?

Leibel: I've very happy that you brought that up. I was hoping people would see the Facility as an allegory for their own lives. Because no matter what region you're in in the world, you're controlled by that god or gods that were made unknown, whether it's media or food that kills us. So when you're in the facility everything is controlled and so is everything in our real lives.

Ryan: I think the important thing about the facility is that we're tapping into is "what is real, what isn't," and the link between sociopathy and acting and the degrees of performance we bring into life. The important thing for all of us was to do an emotional and serious take on the serial killer but none of us wanted it to be cat and mouse. So from the very first page of the story it's not about how to catch this guy or how to contain this guy, it's about how to cure this guy.

As conjectural as that is, it's the journey that all of these characters are on together.

Leibel: We wanted an original vehicle for this idea as opposed to dragging it on to page 90 where someone finds out this facility is a hoax. It's presented to you as soon as possible so you can enjoy it -- well, I wouldn't say enjoy it, but it's very similar to a car accident on the side of the road, where you'd be very interested to see what a serial killer would do if he thought he was free.

Webb: Looking at someone like the killer in this story, Thomas Kane, do you think that this kind of person, the sociopath, is more of an aberration or part of a larger epidemic?

Ryan: We are making a link between sociopathy and something else I don't think we should name. "Selfishness" is by the math of this book is an expression of sociopathy or an aspect of it. So is there an epidemic selfishness? Certainly in the book you can make that argument. What we're trying to test for in the story is so very specific: psychopathic, murderous tendencies. That's what we're trying to cure in the story. But a range of characters display questionable character traits and you're meant to think about their behavior in those terms as well.

Webb: You describe the facility as a way of mapping decision-making and the goal seems to be to undercut selfish or sociopathic decision-making. How do you feel about the moral component of removing or circumventing choices?

Leibel: That comes down to a person's morality, if you want to take it there. Ten out of ten times a sociopath will have damage to the frontal and temporal lobes, or swelling or inflamed and other things that are too complicated for me to understand. But it's always those two areas in a serial killer. And if we could produce something that would reduce these areas or prevent some of these from going on, then that is not controlling a person in a way that is evil or totalitarian. It's controlling a person in the way that a wonderful creator should. It's saying, "okay, this person came out wrong, so I'm going to fix it."

If you look it that way, no one should feel that it's negative.

Quantz: I think with the book we're not trying to say whether it's moral or not moral -- that's for you to decide. I think the process with psychotherapy and the direction that it goes is to identify the syndrome if you will, to identify and cure the behavior. With the particular problem of psychopathy there currently is no cure. There are some theories as to the causes - Blake alluded to some issues with the brain, maybe things to do with mirror neurons being underdeveloped. If we were to try to cure this thing, the only way to identify the problem would be to fool the patient. And it's not a question of whether or not it's morally right to cure a person who doesn't want to be cured. It's a question of us identifying something as a problem and you not being able to identify it as a problem and that's something we're definitely going to have to deal with in the future. And we're not proposing an answer to that. We're just sort of putting out there.

Ryan: There has never been a double-blind clinical trial that involves these types of subjects. There's been these type of test with everything from cigarette smokers to people who are depressed to people who have epilepsy. But this is one area where there's never been a published study treating two or more psychopaths.
And the book is about what if someone tried this study.

hspace="4">Webb: Why do you think some of the characters stick with the study? Some of them keep participating, trying to cure Thomas Kane well after things get kind of hairy for them. What's motivating them besides money?

Quantz: The possibility of actually taking something like this and turning it around. If you look at society and see how many problems are actually rooted in a foundation of psychopathy. Take narcissism: if you could take something like that and turn it around, it would be too enticing for these characters to turn away from. Then there's the ego involved in being a pioneer that applies to something like this as well.

Ryan: And that applies to Alexei. He's doing this because it's the biggest thing he's ever done. The sheer mass of resources it takes to achieve this is what appeals to him.

Leibel: Each of the characters' motivation is different.

Ryan: They're different but you kind of want to ask yourself if they are rooted in selfishness. And that's totally left up to the reader. We like it that way.

Webb: Besides the studies you cited what were some of the other inspirations for this project?

Leibel: Well, the designs of the characters are all done in a way that could give pleasure to someone who enjoys reading the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual). Like from Alexei's youth, he was a courier in Russia before the wall fell and he had a very scary life living against the wall. When he was a teen he was an art counterfeiter. And later he was able to move to America and use his skills in a way that was profitable to him without having to be afraid.

So going back to what Josh said, for him to have this type of power and ability as well as to have no one try to profit from it or exploit him, it's a dream come true in that regard.

As far as Karen goes, her background was so poor and so troubled that when you have your back against the wall and you have no money and all of a sudden there's good money and there's a situation -- girls always love to fix the people who are un-fixable. It's the connective string between all the True Bloods and Twilights where the woman is with the attractive, scary boy and she's the only way who can cure him.

Ryan: Some of these characters' early histories are kind of the meat of the book.

Let's talk a little bit about the format of the book for people who haven't read it. The book is really divided into four chapters, and each one is divided very tightly into the point of view of a specific character who's involved in the giant experiment.

Leibel: We should add to that the color notes: the work that goes into providing the mood for each chapter goes above and beyond. And that's another reason why Dan and Josh work is so fabulous. If you look at each chapter it's not like anything else and each chapter is a standalone piece. And much like Lost you can bounce around but it stays true to the main narrative which is, "When is this bitch gonna get cut up?"

We'll call it what it is, because everyone is going to be wondering that.

Ryan: Yeah, I think we should transition a little to the art and production of the book, because it mirrors a lot of the story that the three of us have been talking about. It was really important to us that each chapter had some kind of stylistic integrity and that happens because Dan, Blake, and myself work close with Dave Marquez who's the artist. He designed the characters to order which were great. And he worked very closely with Bill Farmer, our colorist, to create -- and I hope you felt this when you were reading the book -- a real special feel for each chapter.

Quantz: One of the interesting things we tried to have fun with -- just as a storytelling device -- we transition from one point of view to the next, only giving the reader information that would be available to that character as a way of building layer upon layer the narrative in the mind of the reader. And one of the things that our artist did, Dave Marquez worked in a kind of excellent way to change in very subtle and exciting ways the style of that chapter to give you a sense of that transition. He worked really closely with Bill Farmer who designed the colors to match the art.

Hopefully, in a subliminal way, you as the reader are getting the transitions and not being slapped over the head. And you're getting the sense of being in someone else's mind in each chapter. It doesn't feel jarring and you kind of understand.

Leibel: It's really kind of pleasing and appealing when you're feeling the warmer colors when you're back in time and that's a nice thing. And when you're with Alexei, if you don't feel moody afterwards or don't feel like you're in solitude, then you've rushed over that chapter.

Webb: Were you taking notes on the color elements for Dave and Bill or were they taking the initiative?

Leibel: Oh no, everything was meticulously handled especially by Josh and Dan. Nothing is there by accident.

Quantz: One of the great tools we used was Google Wave, and that allowed us to continually stay in touch and see the progress that say, Dave was making, and kind of have a real-time conversation. Dave is in Texas and Blake, Josh, and I are in Los Angeles. It allowed us to upload documents and make changes really quickly.

Leibel: We changed a lot of panels and there was always organization and enhancement all the way down the final layer and up to the finished inks. Then when it came time for the colors, well my goodness, there were a lot of people that tried to do this and it ended up being that we needed Mr. Farmer to take it home.

Ryan: We did work with someone else and we did have to let someone else go -- and he's a major name in the business. It was very exciting for someone like Bill who's worked with Dave Stewart. Bill bringing that toolkit and that voice was awesome. He did an amazing job.

The book looks -- in terms of color theory -- exactly how we talked about. It's awesome, is what we're trying to say. People seem to like it.

If we can talk about Archaia a little bit, the production is above and beyond what we expected and we're thrilled about the total package.

Leibel: I'm glad you brought that up. There's a gentleman by the name of Stephen Christy who was the editor on this book and he does very, very fine work. When you say Archaia, it'd be really nice to hear his name too. The actual presentation of this book would, I hope, meet your highest standards.

Webb: Who was responsible for the cover?

Ryan: The cover is a photograph, a manipulated image. And it was created by Michael Dahan who is a guy that Dan and I have known for 15 years. He used to be a production executive. Dan and I were working at a movie company and he was one of our superiors -- Dan and I were underlings. This company produced movies like Broken Arrow and he was a producer on the Mel Gibson movie, The Patriot. And it's been like ten years now that he left the movie business and started doing things as diverse as album covers for Good Charlotte and Maxim photo spreads.

He developed this concept and Blake really committed to this idea of that Michael presented of the baby. And we supported him, we love it. It looks so different.

Leibel: When the work came in, there were a few choices. But this one was so special for so many different reasons. Without getting into why it's so great, just psychologically the shade of blue has a lot of yellow in it that makes people feel very happy and creative. And it's only when you get very close to it that you see that it's a little gruesome or deceiving. And I suppose while we're on it, it's a very good metaphor for how you're exposed to your environment. The whole "nature vs. nurture" enters into that a little bit. And your skullcap might as well be off from the minute you're born -- if your environment is wonderful or heinous.

Ryan: It's wonderful to hold in your hand and I hope it contributes to the book's success.

Webb: Although you moved away from T.V., do you see this somewhere down the lines heading back to the small screen?

Leibel: Of course. This is very well-suited for television in the regards that we could have more than one patient, or B and C stories where some characters continue to fail or succeed while Kane and Karen are arcing through the first season. But to be able to see the backstories, to jump around and really get into these characters and see how life on the set affects them when they leave, I think people would really enjoy that. Especially from the four perspectives.

To me, anyone from Russia before the wall fell is fascinating, and Karen is a perspective that has been executed many times, which is the young professional in the mid-20's growing up in L.A. when you have nothing.
Then you have Dr. Chitel who could be nothing less like Thom, but whose past -- we won't get into it now -- but it will definitely provide lots of conversation and lots of nightmares when we get into it.

And then, Thomas Kane, he is a wonderful killer, and nothing should be said to take away from him, but they only get worse. He is the easiest entry into murderous behavior and a charismatic character like Kane. But they come much worse than that.

Ryan: Yeah, we were really interested in making this book great, and any interest in outside media we can't talk about right now. A lot of people have read it and really enjoyed it, and wanted more. There's more story to tell in a comic book which takes a really long period of time to pull off. This took a year and a half. We can do it that way, theoretically in television, we can do it in film, television, AND comics. But we're here to talk about the comic book. That's really where our focus is.

This isn't a project that was shopped to anyone.

Leibel: One of the things that stands out to me -- and Josh and Dan correct me if I'm wrong -- is, I belive the layout of this book is probably some of the finest layout that I've seen in a long time, in terms of easy-to-digest flow and sequence as well as adhering to architecture and anatomy. And it's a really well-executed piece of art, like a symphony. And when you look at the panels and the choice of panels on every page, that, to me, would seem to stand out and makes me very pleased.

Ryan: Charlie, you read the book, tell us your impressions.

Webb: I really liked it. Then I want to say I'm disappointed because it ends. It feels like you're just getting started.

Ryan: This is something we should discuss becasue we've gotten a lot of feedback from people and it's "I love it, I love it, I love the ending," and at the same time, "I love it, I love it, that's a VERY abrupt ending."

Webb: I wouldn't even say abrupt. It just felt like there was so much more of the world to explore. And if, you know, there is a volume 2 I can't wait to check it out.

Ryan: Dan and I made a choice -- and we were supported by Archaia -- we did want to throw lots of ice water in the reader's face to some extent. I felt like the personalities of Thomas Kane and Wolfe deserved that kind of abruptness and shortness. Also, we want the reader to be begging for more of this story and this world.

This is the story of the first step of this experiment.

Quantz: We kind of committed early on to a certain page count. And the story, being what it was, we didn't want to give the concept the short-shrift. We're showing the behind-the-scenes. We're not just saying it's a facility like The Truman Show, we're saying, "If there's a facility, then how does it work, what's life like there," because that's just as fun to us and just as interesting as what's going on inside the facility.

But in order to do that, the way we felt it needed to happen, we felt it would be okay to treat it like the opening of a T.V. show. You have a lot going on, you've introduced this ensemble of characters, and yes, it does end abruptly. But I do feel like it's an ending that on one level it is satisfying but on another you want more because you're curious about what's going to happen next. It allows you to go forward if you want. Just in the same way that if Mad Men were cancelled in season 1.

Leibel: Then, the epilogue, afterwards, should be a satisfying treat. But I have one question: if at any point when you were reading the book did you ever wonder what would happen if someone who was evil controlled the facility?

Webb: Well I got that thought once the money guy behind the facility --

Leibel: There's a private group, way worse than him. I'm gonna let you in on a secret: the people who would like to maybe have a facility that was maybe in a state of emergency all the time and they bring in orphan children to see how they deal with it. There's all kinds of terrible fucking applications you could do with this if you wanted.

Ryan: Whoa!

Leibel: You could recreate the Holocaust if you wanted to. I know there's one group that would like to increase the size of the facility in order to gain the information from it as well as profit from all of the equipment it has to sell. You know, there's also the idea of natural disasters - this one is a little far-fetched - but you could use the facility to see how people would react to aliens visiting us.

Quantz: To clarify, these are all Blake's ideas. [Laughs]

Ryan: We're being pitched right now. The bottom line is that whether the story continues, economics is going to determine that. People have to buy the book, people have to get excited about the book for this to have ANY life. So, we hope that happens. But we can live with that if it doesn't, because what's awesome about working with Archaia was the huge amount of flexibility they gave us to make this feel right and make it different.

One of the really fun parts of making this book was going in a direction where we knew we wouldn't be stopped.

Quantz: I think what we're expecting here is we set up a world here where you can jump off and tell all kinds of different stories. You could do all kinds of things with the characters. You wouldn't buy any of it if we hadn't spent the first volume establishing it.

Leibel: Economics or not, if there's something very sick, a very special killer that needs to be seen another one will be inevitable.

Ryan: [Llaughs] So as long as Archaia is still in business...

But the reality of some of this stuff is that it does end after just one book. And we're very proud of this one book and the collective effort that went into making it.

Webb: Are you thinking about the next project beyond this point?

Leibel: I think all three of us are working on things at various stage of announcement. Blake just had a project announced in the papers the other day. Dan and I are working on stuff we're not ready to talk about yet.

Blake, talk a little bit about what you're doing.

Leibel: The producer of Children of Men optioned a screenplay I did called Psychopomp, and it's about a man who goes around the world to international hotspots and kills anyone who hurts women and children. And he is a charismatic, wonderful man. He's Dexter with a little bit of George Bush. And all the weapons are based off of real DARPA technology and what's available. And he works for himself, and what a great guy. Because it's about time a crazy person was working for the good guys -- and that's what he says.

Ryan: We should also say that Dave Marquez is booking a lot of work. He's handling the art on Archaia's Day’s Missing. And he's doing a book called The Asset for Top Cow that looks really good.

So everyone's working on something else.

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