Eric Stephenson's NOWHERE MEN Rolls On Past First Arc
CREDIT: Image Comics
Last month Image released Nowhere Men #6, the end of the series’ first arc but just the beginning in the story Eric Stephenson and Nate Bellegarde are hoping to tell. In the first six issues, these two Image stalwarts have told the story of a quartet of scientific genius who mix the cerebralism of science with the cultural popularity and in-fighting of rock music – think the Beatles meets Steve Jobs. But things just as things went dark in those two analogies, so has the Fab Four of Nowhere Men – and October’s #6 saw those cracks turn into full-scale carnage.
In the aftermath of Nowhere Men #6 and looking forward to the series’ return in January, Newsarama spoke with Stephenson about the series, talking about his expectations-versus reality, working with the big ideas present in series, as well as analogues beyond the Beatles and into the original Image Comics founders.
Newsarama: Eric, what’s it like to reach the end of the first arc of Nowhere Men, your first major creator-owned series?
Eric Stephenson: I'll tell you -- I was going down to Los Angeles for the premiere of the new season of The Walking Dead a couple weeks back, and Nowhere Men #6 was due for delivery at the office that day. I had an early flight, but I stopped off at the office just in case our shipment from the printer had come in already. It had, so I ripped right into the package, and I was just really excited to finally have this issue in my hands, because… Well, I'll be honest, there were times over the last few months I almost didn't think it was going to happen. So on that level, it's a relief, to be sure, but also, it's nice to have this first chunk of story out there so that people can see how it all fits together and how it sets the stage for what's next.
Nrama: Much has happened in the first six issues, between the four founders, the people who work for them, their developments and the twisting loyalties. What’s been the most surprising part of writing the series – has any of the conflicts or characters changed so far from your plans when you began writing the series?
Stephenson: The characters haven't so much changed as how I've felt about them. I started out really focused on a few characters in particular, characters I kind of regarded as my favorites, but the further along things got, I realized I was actually more interested in some of the others and that changed the way I looked at them and the overall story. There are a couple characters who weren't meant to be around for very long who kind of surprised me once they were on the page, and I decided they should take on a larger part in the overall story. Margaux Ten is one example. Early on, she was just one of Strange's helpers at home, but something about the way Nate drew her in issue two made me want to know more about her, so I came up with a whole back story for her, and then for Richard, who appeared later. There are actually a few characters I've kind of fallen in love with once I've seen Nate draw them, for better or worse.
Nrama: Nowhere Men is an intricate and gripping puzzle of ideas, characters and moments – is it like that for you as the writer, or is it all pretty organic and straightforward?
Stephenson: You know, the best thing that ever happened to this series, and really to me as a writer, is that it took me forever to get it off the ground. The idea went through a lot of different permutations over more than a decade, but in the process, it gave me layers upon layers of back story to play with, along with loads of ideas for where things can go in the future. I mean, I had other things keeping me busy, but I still had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do once things were up and running, and that's been a big help. It's less like a puzzle, and more going on a trip with multiple routes all leading to the same destination. I just have to keep my hands on the wheel and hope I'm choosing the most scenic, and the most interesting, way to get there.
Nrama: You’re working with very complex ideas here – how do you convey the ideas to Nate Bellegarde, the artist? Are your scripts more elaborate than the standard comic script, or is it more in conversation with him you get it across – or something else?
Stephenson: These first six issues were done from plots, not full scripts. Everything was broken down by page, with descriptions of the various locations and what the characters were doing and I included snippets of dialogue when relevant, but I hate the idea of treating artist like pencil robots. Nate's my collaborator, and as such I wanted him to be as involved in the storytelling as I was. Unless I was dead set on a particular angle or some other visual element, I left that to him. I hadn't worked with Nate before Nowhere Men, but as it turns out, we work really well together and over the course of these six issues, we've developed a method of working that uses the plot as a starting point, but also incorporates email and texts. There have been a lot of instances where Nate will ask a question or make a comment about something, and it will get me thinking about something I hadn't considered before. There are a couple of times he's drawn things just to warm up before starting a page, and when he showed me, it gave me an idea for a different way to do something in the book, and I love that, because even though I have my own road map for where we're going with the series, I like that our collaboration lends itself to these little bursts of spontaneity.
Nrama: The news articles, book excerpts and media coverage inside Nowhere Men really add a new level to the story. You and Nate aren’t the first, but you’re one of the first to do it so extensively and popularly in comics. Can you talk as writer and publisher about using methods like these to tell your story and broaden the world you’re writing about?
Stephenson: I've said this before, but the main proponent in all that is that I feel like $2.99 is a lot to charge for a comic book. I felt the same way back in the '90s when Image titles were $1.95 -- I think readers deserve to get their money's worth out of a book, not 20 pages of story and an ad farm in the back of the book. At the same time, I don't think it's fair to a series' artist to ask them draw 28-32 pages every month. Most artists are taking between four and six weeks to draw 20-24 pages, so you know, it's just kind of pushing the limit of what's possible, and that's what got me thinking about adding additional elements. Originally, it was just the poster on the inside front cover of issue one, but after we had that done, I was looking at ways to get more information about the characters and the world into the first issue, and since I'm always looking at old magazines and books and records and stuff, I thought it would be interesting to incorporate things like that into the overall narrative, and I feel like it’s been enriching for the book and for everyone on the creative time.
Nrama: This question is a bit of a tangent, so bear with me—but while re-reading Nowhere Men for this interview I read the interior Image company credits and it struck me that Nowhere Men is about a group of creative types founding something and now it changes after time. Image’s origin story with the seven comic creators who went into business for themselves has become a bit of a benchmark in the comics industry – and you were there since the early days, first working under Rob Liefeld’s company and then joining Image Central in the early 2000s. And while I’m not saying the founders of World Corp in Nowhere Men are analogues for the Image founders, can you speak on those comparisons?
Stephenson: Well, it certainly hasn't hurt that I've been involved with Image almost since the beginning. I didn't start the series with a conscious effort to draw on that, but there have been moments along the way where I've kind of thought, "Oh wow, this kind of lines up with this…" My inspiration for the characters is a lot more involved than any one analogue, though. Some people look at the title and the description of the World Corp founders as the Fab Four of science and assume it's just the Beatles, but you know, the Beatles weren't the only band to come to a tumultuous end. I love reading about music history, and there's lots of that in here, but not always in an apples to apples sort of way. Likewise, there are characters whose roots lie in film, literature, comics, and the art world, so…. Yeah, there's a bit of the Image founders in here, and there are definitely nods to the Beatles, but there's also a bit of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Andrew Loog Oldham, Richey Manic, Arthur Lee, Steve Ditko, Kurt Vonnegut, Patrick McGoohan, Eero Saarinen, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Stanley Kubrick.
Nrama: The book has had some delays, with these first six issues taking 11 months to come out. Doing a book monthly is a hard task even for major corporations with dozens of employees, so readers can understand. But can you talk about the delays and what the future looks like for Nowhere Men?
Stephenson: That's been a super drag. And I mean, seriously, I'm putting that really fucking lightly. I'm not going to get into the whys and wherefores behind the delays, because even though this is the age of airing your dirty laundry on the Internet, I actually think there's something to be said for working your problems out in private, and you know, there were definitely some problems and they carried on for a quite a while longer than anyone involved was expecting. John Stewart likes to use the phrase "Bullshit Mountain" a lot on his show, and having issue six out, I kind of feel like we've been on a five month expedition to the top of Bullshit Mountain and back and I'm just happy for it to finally be over.
As for the future, we've got the trade paperback coming out toward the end of November, in time for the Thought Bubble show in Leeds, and after that, we'll be back with the next arc in January.
Nrama: Is the first trade just a collection of the entire six issues, or is there new material inside?
Stephenson: It's the entire series from the inside front cover of number one to the inside back cover of number six. None of the covers, no chapter breaks or anything like that, but all of the in-world ads, posters, and articles, so that it's just 180 pages of immersive content. The full Nowhere Men experience, if you will.
Nrama: According to the solicits, joining you and Nate with issue #7 is Emi Lennox. Can you tell us what part she plays, and how her joining the book came about?
Stephenson: I've been a fan of Emi's work since a friend gave me copies of her Emitownmini-comics a few years back, and I just really love her artwork. Her sketch blog stuff is great, most of which has been collected in the two Emitown books Image has published, but she also does this great watercolor work, and since a big part of Nowhere Men is the non-story content we were talking about earlier, I always thought it would be fun to get her involved with some of that if there was an opportunity. I'm really happy with how her contributions have turned out so far.
Nrama: Nowhere Men has some very open analogues to the Beatles quartet. The series opened with a nod to one Beatles’ song, and the final dialogue in #6 hinted at possibly another. If you could describe what’s next for the series in Beatles terms, what would it be?
Stepehenson: "It was 20 years ago today that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play"
Nrama: And what can you say about that final page of Nowhere Men #6 – the poster with “Join Us”?
Stepehenson: I know it's been a long time since issue one first hit the stands, but like I said, the trade will collect everything from the inside front cover of number one the inside back cover of issue six, and there are two different versions of the poster, one at the beginning and one at the end. Those aren't the only two links between issues one and six, but hopefully when people see it all together, it'll be apparent how they're connected and what they mean.
And yeah, like I said, we're back with the next arc in January, so… join us.