Comic Watch recently had the opportunity to chat with Damian Wampler, writer of the exciting sci-fi noir thriller graphic novel Monitor published by Broken Icon Comics. We get some in-depth insight into the inspirations behind the series, the importance of privacy in today’s age and so much more! Check out the full interview below…
Comic Watch: First, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us about your series Monitor. Can you give us a quick rundown on how this project came together in the early days and how it found a home in Broken Icon Comics?
Damian Wampler: Monitor came together as a direct result of a fundamental change in strategy and personal philosophy that came about after I published my first graphic novel Sevara with Broken Icon Comics five years ago. When I made Sevara, a complex sci-fi fantasy, I was focused on making a long epic comic book series and pitching it to publishers. But creating Sevara taught me to think small, not think big. Thinking small is the key to success. I realized that if you can’t make a stunning, moving, and compelling 8-page comic, why would you want to pitch a 100-page graphic novel? So my next few projects after Sevara were short, intimate, and self-contained. Monitor started off as an 8-page story as well. I pitched it to anthologies and some publishers, but it was designed to stand alone. When you read the graphic novel, you’ll see that the first 8 pages are a mini-adventure in and unto itself. And while I did have a draft scenario for the rest of the graphic novel, I didn’t have a script. That gave me the freedom to really have fun once Broken Icon Comics gave me the green light about a year later.
I felt like Monitor worked pretty well as a short comic and wanted to see it in an anthology or sci-fi magazine, but about a year ago I was talking to the director of operations of Broken Icon Comics and we agreed to make a full-length graphic novel for 2020. We were under the gun in terms of time, because a year is not all that long to make a graphic novel. But I assured Eric that we could do it because I knew that our artist, Elisabeth, was extremely hard-working and prolific. She’s the hardest-working artist I’ve ever met, and I knew she could draw the whole book very quickly. In having worked with a number of other artists I can assure you that Elisabeth is one of the most extraordinarily focused and dedicated artists out there. She was able to knock out all 100 pages in a very short time, on par with the speed of an artist at Marvel or DC.
CW: I want to dive right into the heart of this series to ask what pushed you to write about technological dependence on this level, and how you approached the worldbuilding with familiar terminology and concepts in our own world today?
DW: I wrote the initial story not long after watching a few films and documentaries about big data and Cambridge Analytics. Monitor is a sci-fi and a noir thriller, but it’s also a horror as well. And some of the things I read about big data and the manipulation of social media and personality types are honestly quite horrifying. It gave me chills down my spine to think that data about my past decisions and preferences can predict how I’ll react to a certain marketing campaign or political ad. That’s quite scary. And I took that fear and I personalized it. I created a world where all your data is in the hands of the government and the government’s artificial intelligence. I love science fiction, and I felt that no one had ever done anything like this before.
When it came to worldbuilding, I started off with a very generic cyberpunk world that would be familiar to sci-fi fans, (flying cars etc.) and then I built out from there. I played with scale and extremes. For example, the crematorium holds thousands of bodies, and the hospitals grow babies like it’s a chicken farm. I made the rich super rich, living in houses that look like clam shells from the painting The Birth of Venus. And as I wrote the script, I added in more mythical and biblical elements. I kept adding more elements from the Old Testament as I wrote the script so that readers would have some familiar anchors to tie themselves to. So as the story gets more complex and remote, it also gets more simple and familiar.
I also did some linguistic worldbuilding as well. I wanted to use computer terminology like delete, permission, execution, and use it in everyday speech much like the way we unconsciously use economic terms in our everyday speech today (spend time, for example). Using these computer terms distances the characters from what they’re actually doing, and the main character has to learn to reconnect with humanity by understanding that deleting a human being is actually murder.
CW: Privacy and accessibility to our most private data is something that runs to the core of Monitor, and it’s not difficult to see how that relates to our world today. However, did you run into any unexpected challenges in conveying these themes when developing the story?
DW: There were a couple of challenges. The first challenge is that data is invisible, but comics are a visual medium. So it’s hard to put data into a comic book in a compelling way. You can only show how the characters make decisions, and how they react to decisions made by others. That’s the engine that drives any good story, so I had to turn data into a character. So I ended up making a character that represents the authority, a woman named Regis, and a character who represents the computers, an AI called Node 227. These two are the antagonists who use the data to manipulate society, and our main characters are those why try to resist.
Storywise, I worked hard to avoid cliches because so much in sci-fi has been done before. Right now, Altered Carbon and Westworld are confronting some of the same issues I’m dealing with in Monitor, even though I wrote the script to Monitor a year ago and there’s no way I could have known what would happen in those two shows that are on right now. But all writers know to throw out the first ten ideas and go with idea number eleven. So I had to really push myself to tell this story in a way that’s never been done before and could not be duplicated.
CW: Monitor is a sci-fi noir thriller that can draw comparisons to Blade Runner and Minority Report, but were there any particular comics that inspired you during the writing process?
DW: I think one major inspiration was East of West (Image) by Hickman and Dragotta. While the two titles differ greatly, there are some similarities when it comes to visual imagery and the use of mythology and biblical elements. East of West is both alien and familiar at the same time, which is partially what inspired me to ground Monitor with some representations from the animal and biblical world. In East of West you have the characters of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a motif that will be immediately recognizable to a Western reader. I think that instantly creates a base that the reader can link to, but also allows the writers to play with the notions of good and evil and subvert the mythology. I also like how East of West uses robotic horses to keep the reader firmly connected to the idea of the wild west, a genre of lawlessness and frontier justice that we are all familiar with. With Monitor, I also wanted to start with a familiar genre and use symbols like animals to create a framework. From there you can buck expectations and be subversive, like making the Four Horsemen the good guys.
CW: There is an interesting religious element in the free-born peoples that contrasts the heavily-policed city-state’s obsession with technology, can you talk a little about the importance of this duality in Monitor?
DW: Duality is a major theme in Monitor and it plays out in many aspects of the book. In the world of Monitor, humans are grown in farm-like laboratories. Couples basically request permission from the Server to have a baby, and then go online and order their babies. They can gene-edit the child and custom-order the offspring they want. The Server has completely dehumanized the process of creation and replaced god. So in contrast, I made the free-born people very religious and organic. I pushed both sides to an extreme. The free-born believe in a number of gods, and place their fate and future in the hands of idols and statues. Both the technological approach and the free-born people have their strong beliefs, and both belief systems have merit and value. I don’t want to say one is good and one is bad.
Duality is something I focus on heavily in the book. In Monitor, the concept of reflection is a major theme we see over and over again. Nothing is what it seems, and almost every character has a foil. Even the Hell Hound, the tracker robot dog used by the police, have a real dog as a foil that we see with the free-born people. There are lots of mirrors in the book, but also with augmented reality, there are multiple realities that all exist at once. Just like the technological and religious worlds exist at the same time, AR allows people to exist in multiple realities at once. Using AR, I can see someone as a monster and another person can see that same person as an angel. That’s the way our technology is headed, with FaceTune and real-time AR apps that make us look different than who we really are. So I wanted to push that to an extreme. If everyone is using AR and seeing the world differently, then what is reality?
CW: Can you give us some insight on how the collaboration process was with the rest of the creative team in bringing Monitor to life?
DW: The collaboration process with Elisabeth was great, because she was able to shoot me ideas and suggestions as we went along. Actually, it was Elisabeth who steered me towards a more humanistic approach to the entire story. So I’d have to say that collaboration and communication are elements that really play the lead role in the creation process. Here’s the story about how Monitor developed the way it did. I wrote the first half of the script and sent it to Elisabeth before I had written the second half of the script. So she didn’t know where it was going and how it was going to end, but at the same time, neither did I. So she started drawing pages and I started writing the ending. About a third of the way into drawing the comic, Elisabeth sent me a message and said, “Shouldn’t Talira be more angry at this point?”. And so I sat down and started thinking about Talira’s emotions and Eric’s reaction, and I ended up changing the whole ending to focus more on Eric’s self-realization. In my initial draft, Monitor was just an action move. but after Elisabeth and I chatted, I realized that Eric’s role in the data manipulation was the heart of the story. Eric, and the reader, needed to understand what the government was doing with the data, and how that impacted people’s lives. So I went back and I looked at the first 8 pages. On page three, Eric locates a few “Disconnects”, people who have disconnected from the Server, and he ‘deletes’ them. He overloads their monitors and he kills them. Re-reading that with fresh, I rewrote the whole graphic novel to focus on the consequences of what Eric does on page three. I ended up making a book more about morality and less about heroism. It ended up being more about self-discovery and about grey areas. I want to collaborate with Elisabeth again, and actually she and I did a 10-page short story called “Monsterly” that was part of the Gwan Anthology #2 in 2019. We are hoping to continue that story and that collaboration, because even when working on “Monsterly” I’ve been taking her views into account and making changes to the future scripts based on her feedback.
CW: Have you always been a fan of high concept sci-fi stories, and how do you feel the genre lends itself towards many of the themes explored in Monitor?
DW: When you start a project, you have to think about the setting, genre, and time period very carefully because those elements will immediately convey meaning to the audience. There are symbols and attitudes that instantly kick in once you introduce the setting. The genre you choose sets the tone and builds a foundation of expectations. Monitor is a sci-fi, but it’s also a noir, which has its own tropes that I stuck to. In noir, there’s always a cop or former detective in way over his head, pulled into a plot that’s beyond his control or comprehension. There’s always a platinum blonde, and a brunette who contrast one another. And the main character is usually reduced to a pawn by the end of the story, powerless to fight back against the system. So I stuck to that model in Monitor. We have a blonde femme fatele, Regis, and a mysterous brunette, Talira Brae. Eric thinks he has control, but the Server has its own plan and has all the power. I even reduced the color pallete to blue and grey to harken back to ’50’s back and white film noir to a certain degree.
For storytelling purposes I like period pieces, whether they are sci-fi or historical, because you can cut away all the noise and unnecessary aspects of life and really focus on the subject you are trying to get at. You can cut away the noise and clutter of everyday life. For Monitor, I wanted people to really think about the technology they currently have, and see how it might evolve if we’re not careful with it. I love sci-fi and I love exploring human nature through what-if scenarios.I always have. I read a lot of sci-fi growing up in Delaware in the 80s and 90s. I remember checking out tons of sci-fi books from the Newark Public Library. Sci-fi just worked for this story, but it might not work for every story. But my next project is about law and freedom, and so I’m going to set that in America during Prohibition.
CW: While there is a powerful ending to Monitor, do you feel like this is a world you would want to return to in the future for potentially another volume?
DW: I would love to do a sequel and continue the story. We have to see how Monitor is received, first of all. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Some people will love it, some people will hate it. In a noir, you don’t always know what’s going on. There’s a lot of mystery, and a lot happening behind the scenes, which some people might not like. And although I tried to make a very human story, some people will be put off by all the cyborgs and machinery. So I’m going to wait and see, and in the meantime I’m working on “The Rum-Running Queen,” a story about a female moonshine smuggler in 1930s Prohibition, and “Monsterly,” about a family of half-humans half-monsters just trying to survive day by day. Monitor ends in a satisfying way, but as you said, there is room for more. So if people love Monitor and I find a publisher, I’d continue Eric and Talira’s journey. Monitor is kind of like taking the Old Testament of the Bible and putting it in a blender, with robots. So maybe part 2 would be like the Book of Matthew. I try not to think about a sequel too much because the chances of Monitor catching on and becoming a success are so remote – comics aren’t financially successful for me yet. I’m just taking this whole thing one day at a time. And thinking about a continuation of the story is frightening as well. Sequels are hard. In film, how many good sequels are there? Maybe four (Aliens, T2, Godfather 2, Empire Strikes Back?). And how many good third sequels are there? (silence…) So it’s a real challenge to move a story forward when things are so self-contained as they are in Monitor. I’m just trying to get Monitor into people’s hands. If they like it, they should shoot me an email or wait for “Rum-Running Queen” to come out in 2021.
There you have it! The graphic novel is available now so be sure to get your copy of Monitor from Broken Icon Comics here!
As always, stay tuned to Comic Watch for all your news and reviews.
Reconnect with Humanity: An Interview with Damian Wampler of Monitor
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