Fiction, Outlawed - Steve Niles on City of Dust

Steve Niles on City of Dust

Imagine a future where comics are not only obsolete... they're against the law, along with books, movies, music and religion. A society where the police patrol the city for crimes of the imagination, and little kids turn their parents to the authorities for reading fairytales to them.

Steve Niles introduces readers to the world of City Of Dust: A Philip Khrome Story, where in the year 2166 the discovery of a children's book can prove more scandalous to the life of a homicide cop than the headless mutilated corpse protecting it. The first issue of the thrilling mini-series comes out October 1st and if 48 pages for $3.99. In addition, Steve Niles will be conducting a live webcast Sept 30th at Manolis Vamvounis sat down with creator Steve Niles to talk about his unique vision of the future, the challenges of combining science fiction with horror, and the concern about seeing his imagined future realized.

Newsarama: Thanks for taking the time for this interview, Steve. Let's start with how City of Dust: A Philip Khrome Story came about.

Steve Niles: City of Dust came about from years of talking with Barry Levine, who runs Radical Comics. He and I have known each other for quite a few years and we were trying to find a project to do together. When he got together with the artists at Imaginary Friends Studios, he showed me the artwork while we were sitting at lunch and I started riffing on an idea based on the art. The art had such a heavy sort of film production drawing quality and I'm very heavy on science fiction books whose kind of artwork I don't see quite a lot of, so that really got my attention. I started throwing ideas at Barry right there on the spot and we wound up developing the rough concept of what would become City of Dust. I don't get a chance to write much science fiction, it's a really unique genre to combine with horror, it works very well.

NRAMA: How did you first get introduced to Barry Levine?

SN: He didn't even know me when he found some of my books - I believe they were the Cal McDonald novels, Savage Membrane and Guns, Drugs & Monsters - he found them in a bookstore and liked them so much he gave them to the people who are now my agent, and then called me as just a fan saying he would help me out because he likes my stuff.

NRAMA: Can you give us a brief outline about what the book is about?

SN: Without going into too much detail, as I want to leave some surprises for the readers. Some of things that I like about the story is... it takes place in a future where basically things like storytelling, comic books, movies, novels, any form of fictional storytelling has been made illegal. As time progressed this has also included prayer and things like Friday the 13th and the Bible: they are all exactly the same in the eyes of this government. It's a clean sort of Big Brother society where the imagination is not something people consider a good thing; it's dangerous. It leads to problems.

NRAMA: How does this ban on fiction affect the society in the story?

SN: I'm really showing the society through one character, who's this cop and what we know about him right from the first issue is that he turned his father, his own family members, in for imagination and prayer crimes, at a very young age. So he was actually raised by the system, making him a complete product of the system that enforces the laws. Through him we see how people, no matter how much they're oppressed, they will always find the way to get the things they want, whether it is sex, movies, drugs, whatever. Making something illegal doesn't get rid of it, it just pushes it underground, and it turns people who shouldn't be criminals into criminals. And our character has a connection to that underworld

NRAMA: What more can you reveal about this character?

SN: The character, Philip Khrome, is a cop who relies very heavily on his technology to be a cop, to solve a crime scene or anything like that; he uses a lot of machinery. So, when strange events start to occur, his technology no longer works, and he is forced to learn how to become a detective, which is a hardship I really enjoy: in this futuristic city against this technological horror, he has to learn old-fashioned detective techniques.

NRAMA: What are these strange events?

SN: He investigates a murder. Now, this is a pretty tough cop who's seen a lot of dead bodies in his time. He finds a body with its head almost completely removed. But that's not what bothers him. He finds a little children's book, a little ABC story book, you know 'D is for Dracula', and he reacts to it like we might react to finding a bottle of anthrax. He's absolutely terrified, and that's the first hint to something strange, people getting murdered over children's books.

NRAMA: So this horror is linked to the story ban?

SN: The nature of the horror itself, which is a big part of the story, is that certain people obviously don't let go of prayer and don't let go of stories and try to keep oral histories going and try to preserve some artifacts of when people thought telling stories was ok. One such man tries to create something that will remind people of that. So he decides to make these robotic creatures, these monsters. And he learns a really tragic lesson, and that is that even artificial evil is evil. Where he creates these imaginary monsters to spark the imagination of the people, he actually winds up creating a terrible threat.

NRAMA: Is there some event between now and this future that leads to fiction being outlawed?

SN: It was a gradual extinction of reading. It is very much based on what I see happening now. Look around us at the industries that are failing on a regular basis: Books, magazines, comics... Everything that involves reading is essentially starting to sell less and less and less. Take that idea with the concept that every single war on earth in the entire history of the planet has been over religion and combine these two and... It's a possible future, you know? I talk to people, it's funny, you talk to kids now, and you'll reference - you know the famous story of the tortoise and the hare, right?

NRAMA: One of Aesop's Fables...

SN: Right, it's this famous story that people have used for centuries to get across certain ideas. I mention that to kids today and they go "what the hell are you talking about?"! So the actual, the whole reason for having even those kind of stories doesn't exist anymore. And you can just see how we're gradually becoming an illiterate society anyway. I see it leading ultimately to when books and things like that don't exist; they become something people fear which is also inevitably what we do.

NRAMA: I found the book to be an amazing cross-genre book, combining elements from horror, cyberpunk, monster flicks and crime noir. Correct me if I'm wrong, but this is the first time you've dabbled in a sci-fi setting. What were your challenges?

SN: It really is. You have to build the entire world. I wrote a lot of stuff where it says "set in New York at night", and everybody understands what you're talking about. But with a project like this you have to describe the street, how the people are on the street, what are the cars like, what are the businesses, what are they called, how is advertising treated in a world like this? It's a lot more time spent world-building, you actually have to figure all the details out. It's a bit more of a challenge but it's a fun challenge.

NRAMA: How important is the believability or 'credibility' factor in this case?

SN: I think setting can make or break a story, but for me the most important thing is the characters and that you care about the characters. You can take this story and lay it out as a western and hopefully it will work. A good story should play in any genre.

NRAMA: Similar to your grudge at vampires being 'defanged'/romanticized in popular fiction (something you very successfully addressed with 30 Days of Night), do you have any similar pet peeves about sci-fi?

SN: I know horror a lot better than science fiction. What Ben [Templesmith] and I did with 30 Days of Night, it was a direct reaction to the fact that I didn't like vampires anymore, I was not scared by them, I didn't consider them monsters anymore and that motivated us. I'm still very intimidated by science fiction. When I think science fiction, I think of guys like Philip K. Dick, and I can't even hold a candle to those guys. It's a very different challenge and I'm really enjoying it. It offers a lot of the same things horror does, which is just letting the imagination run free, but you have to have it make some sort of scientific sense, whereas in horror it just has to feel right in the gut, sort of on a spiritual level.

NRAMA: What are your other inspirations from science fiction?

SN: Mostly film. I wish I could say I was a more avid science fiction reader, but I grew up mostly reading horror. I read a lot of Richard Matheson, and Harlan Ellison of course, Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester, and when the cyberpunk thing started I read William Gibson and things like that, but mainly my influence comes from films like Metropolis, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, those are some of my favorite movies of all time.

NRAMA: What scares you most about the future?

SN: I'm a total paranoid. I'm convinced the government is out to make us fat and slow so that when they send out the kill-bots we can't run from them. I think there's far too much of this, at least in the U.S., the government infringing on basic liberties is already happening. You know, this whole non-smoking movement is a perfect example of the Big Brother state we're becoming, that's happening all over the world. There's absolutely zero proof that second hand smoke is deadly. It's annoying, if you don't like it, but it's not deadly. There's no proof. Yet now smokers have been turned into criminals basically, and I think that that's a very very bad step to the future and I think a first step to the world I'm talking about, the one I'm writing about. You start taking away people's freedoms a little bit at a time, it always ends badly.

NRAMA: Do you think this is something that could happen in the future, that liberties will be obsolete?

SN: I think we're already in danger of people not reading. I get a lot of fan-mail and I notice my older fans write the way everybody does. My newer fans write with no punctuation, no capitalization, and words all abbreviated like text messaging, so they're actually adopting text messaging shorter versions of words, instead of actually spelling the words. So right now I see systematically people are becoming illiterate and what better way to control what people read when they don't even want to read anymore. I definitely see it's foreseeable. They've tried to take books away from us before and they've tried to take people's religions away before.

NRAMA: Is that something you've incorporated in the book?

SN: I tried to a little bit, a lot of the things, like the story of the Tortoise and the Hare. In this society's mind it's a distant memory, something the grandparents have told them when they were babies. It's the last generation where they're letting go of these memories, so I've handled it that way.

NRAMA: Let's talk about your artist on this project, Zid. Have you met with him?

SN: I have never met him. I chat to him every once in a while, and I send the scripts through Radical and I sometimes get a few questions back but I haven't had the chance to meet with him and so far I don't have any reason other than to congratulate him on the great job he's doing. Every time I get a page back from him it's exactly what I scripted, it's vastly incredible

NRAMA: The first issue has been announced as a double-sized prestige format book.

SN: I know, isn't that great! They basically just gave me a bit extra room to play. I have a habit when I'm writing a comic series; I'm always picturing it when it's all bound together.

NRAMA: Writing for the graphic novel...

SN: I'm always writing for that pace.

NRAMA: What have you got planned for this series? Is it self-contained or do you have a larger story and sequels planned out?

SN: At the end of the story we're going to end up with one or two characters who I think could definitely be spun off into other adventures. It's definitely not a one-off. It's a story about the creation of a character as well.

NRAMA: So this is a world that you would be interested in revisiting later on?

SN: Definitely so.

NRAMA: What has the promotional tour been like? I know you've just come back from San Diego where you were giving out free signed promotional books for City of Dust: A Philip Khrome Story.

SN: Yes, these beautiful ashcans with all the covers, and some art samples and plot descriptions, they made these beautiful posters of the covers of the book, with this werewolf gripping a rosary which is a very poignant image. It was really great. I got to sign with Arthur Suydam, and Lucio Parrillo... Radical's doing a great job right now.

NRAMA: What was the initial reception from the fans that came to the booth and talked to you?

SN: Well, when you're giving out stuff for free, they always come running, it's hard to tell (laughs). People seemed really responsive to the concept when they heard it, and they were really responsive to all the beautiful artwork.

NRAMA: The book was originally solicited as Khrome which is the main character's name...

SN: Yeah, I got a letter from a gentleman who does an independent comic, also called Khrome, and I hadn't heard of it when we did our searches. So I called Radical and told them that I'd to change the name, as I don't like kicking on the little guy. We could've fought for it, but why do that, life is too short for bullshit lawsuits and stuff like that. Radical was very nice and let me change the title so the other gentleman could maintain Khrome as the title of his book.

NRAMA: ...and so you changed the name of your book to City of Dust.

SN: Well first, it sounds cool, two, it's sort of to me, I get a picture of an old house that hasn't been touched, hasn't been used, it has gathered dust, and you get this vision of the future where the people have fallen asleep and covered in dust

NRAMA: You have a history of working with smaller independent publishers, like IDW and now Radical. What are the strengths of working with these publishers instead of going to the major ones?

SN: Well, it ain't the money! (laughs) No, kidding. The biggest reason, one word: Freedom.

They let creators do what creators do. When you work for the majors, Marvel, DC, even Dark Horse, a lot of the time you're playing in their sandbox, and you have to play by their rules and that's the way it should be. If you're writing Dr. Strange or Spider-man, you gotta follow their rules, because that's what people are going to the comic stores to buy. But with Radical and IDW, it's all about experimentation; it's all about finding something new: finding new genres, finding new ways to tell stories. Just throwing stuff out there that the majors really can't afford to take a chance with, really.

NRAMA: Looking back through your career, you've put your unique twist to a large number of horror genres: vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein's monster, zombies, crime noir, murder mysteries, Americana, giant monsters, Bigfoot, alien invasions... I could go on for a while... The feeling I get is you're working each of the genres out of your system.

SN: To me that's what it's all about, genre and horror and science fiction and all genres, in movies, books or comics, if you look back everything has a history of people who you know -- I grew up reading Richard Matheson and I feel like I watched every frickin bad horror fiction that was ever made and I read as much as I could. Now I have all this stuff stuck in my head and now it's my job to put it out there for a new generation. Hopefully somewhere out there there's a kid, like I was, reading my stuff and getting inspired to do his interpretations of stuff for the next generation. I've always really pictured the genre like being a relay race. It's almost our duty to carry on these traditions.

NRAMA: Are there any genres you're still itching to try on?

SN: I'm sure there're definitely things out there. I'd like to try out some straight crime stories sometimes, or straight comedy, things that people would generally not accept of me.

NRAMA: I picked out a recent comment from the San Diego Radical Comics panel, where you were commenting on the running gag of how many Radical Comics properties have already been picked up by movie studios and producers, quipping that "[your] City of Dust had been sold as a movie property while [you] were still describing the book".

SN: That's the way I perceived things. Well, every time I turned around, Barry was telling me they've sold another property.

NRAMA: Anything to report then on City of Dust: A Philip Khrome Story?

SN: To tell you the truth, there's a lot of interest. We already have people asking us and I'm of a mind, I want to finish a little bit more of the comic, before thinking of those options. Right now, I'm just concentrating on doing the comic book if there's a movie and what it will be, I will let Radical worry about that because they're doing such a good job. But when the time comes I will be writing the script for the movie as well and when/if that happens I will turn my full attention to that. But right now I try not to get too distracted because I love writing comics so much. I feel even if I'm making something that might end up being on the big screen, my job is to make the comic the best I can.

NRAMA: That's something I really appreciate. A lot of creators today just use comics as a movie pitching vehicle. And I picked up another comment from an older interview: "My agent always wants to kill me, because I'm always like, 'I want movies to do well so I can do more comics.' But I have more freedom in comics; I can do what I want".

SN: My first motivation for everything I do is love for the genre and love for being creative. I'm a notoriously hideous businessman, I drive my agent, business manager and lawyer completely insane all the time.

NRAMA: But you've started on your own production company recently?

SN: I have a production company called "Fire Bad" and right now that's just a company that I'll be producing a lot of new projects with over the next couple of years, mostly publications, maybe some film stuff and even some music properties we're talking about.

NRAMA: Any closing words, Steve?

SN: I hope people pick it up and give it a chance. It's something different out there and it's really beautiful looking. I think they'll wind up really enjoying it.

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