NONPLAYER Creator Explains the Series Long Delay and Long Awaited Return

Nonplayer #1 Third Eye Comics variant by Nate Simpson
Nonplayer #1 Third Eye Comics variant by Nate Simpson
Credit: Image Comics
Credit: Image Comics

In 2011, Image Comics released Nonplayer #1 by cartoonist Nate Simpson. With a meticulously-rendered art style and a young female protagonist whose passion is a virtual reality game, this debut issue awed critics, enamored fans, and even impressed Hollywood enough to earn a movie deal -- but then, it all stopped. 

After the debut of Nonplayer, Simpson found the sudden success as overwhelming as it was gratifying. Simpson's plans for a second issue were derailed by him breaking his collarbone as well as other real life issues. Now, four years and a couple false starts later, Simpson is back with Nonplayer #2 scheduled for June 3 and a reprint on April 1 of the original issue that caught fans' attention in the first place.

Newsarama: Nate, your journey to completing Nonplayer #2 has been a challenging one. What was the hardest part of that process? What has been the most rewarding?

Nate Simpson: I’m trying to come up with an answer that won’t sound completely absurd to a comics fan who’s used to getting an issue a month. Here we are describing “a journey to completion” of a single issue! The fact that I still feel self-conscious about the release cadence speaks to the greatest challenge of this whole project, which has been to fight against my own prejudices about what comprises a “successful” comic.

There were people telling me back in 2011 that if the second issue didn’t make it out before the end of that year, my reputation would be completely destroyed, retailers would never forgive me, and I’d never get to make another comic again. Sometime in 2013, I think that narrative sort of sank into my bones and I really despaired. And with my day job taking up so much of my time, and then needing to devote even more of each day to raising a baby, it really started to look bleak. But a lot of people -- my wife, a few die-hard fans, and even some retailers -- reminded me that there was value in what I was making, and that it was worth it to find an hour or two every day to keep making small deposits in the Nonplayer bank. Which turned out to mean waking up at 3 A.M. every day, which was its own challenge.

I guess that has been the most rewarding part of this process, outside of the sheer relief of having another issue in the can. Just discovering that there are a lot of people on similar journeys, balancing day jobs and family obligations against the need to create, and that the timescale was less important than the voyage, itself. It became less about the physical goal and more about making and protecting a place for creativity in my life.

Credit: Image Comics

Nrama: One of the most remarkable aspects of comics, in general, is their seemingly infinite potential to go as far as a creator’s imagination will allow. That seems to be the approach you take with Nonplayer, in addition to painstaking artistic detail. What would you say to readers to help them better understand why a comic like this takes longer to create?

Simpson: Well, there’s the obvious time constraint -- a full-time comics artist works twelve or more hours a day on a book, and I had much less bandwidth.

Nrama: Your doing comics while also having a full-time job.

Simpson: Yes.

But Nonplayer is also slow-cooked by design -- I like reading comics that have depth, both narratively and artistically, and those can’t really be made quickly. If you think of a typical comic progressing horizontally, where information is spread out across multiple panels, pages, and issues -- I think Nonplayer spends that effort drilling straight into the page so that you can kind of walk around the scenery and find something rewarding back there.

That, and the first issue set the quality bar pretty high. My guiding principle was “polish until the addition of artwork begins to actively ruin the scene, then stop.” And I tried to outdo the first issue with the second one, so a lot of time was spent spit-shining everything.

Nrama: Nonplayer #1 resonated with so many because I think we all fantasize great things for ourselves at one time or another, and it doesn’t always work out that way. So, we find ways to escape. Comics epitomize escapism, and in the first issue we met Dana, a tamale delivery girl, whose escape to her life in the game Warriors of Jarvath is more important to her than her corporeal existence. Is the meta nature of this intentional? What ideas, if any, do you hope to explore with this?

Simpson: Weirdly, I had not consciously recognized the similarities between the protagonist and the book’s readers until after the first issue came out. I kept meeting fans who reminded me of Dana, and she reminded them of themselves, too. Coming from a generation where “nerd” was a pejorative term and reclusive intellectual pursuits were actively frowned upon, I am frequently surprised by the confidence, creativity, and intelligence of this new generation of comics readers. And that’s pretty much Dana in a nutshell -- making her way forward creatively, not apologizing for liking what she likes, being amazing at what she does, and doing it all with style.

In the last couple of years, Image Comics have seen this unprecedented demographic expansion, especially as a result of Saga and the appearance of all these talented female voices. Dana feels a lot more at home in the current line-up than she did even in 2011. I’m happy about that.

But taking a step back, I’ve been interested in the relative values of “real” versus “simulated” achievement for a very long time. Having worked in video games since 1993, I have witnessed first-hand the increasing verisimilitude of games and the transition of gaming culture into the mainstream. When Nonplayer first came out, it was partly informed by the stories of people I’d personally known who’d sort of retreated into World of Warcraft at the expense of their livelihoods and personal relationships. And here we are in 2015 and Oculus Rift is set to bring us the Metaverse, so these questions are more relevant than ever.

I can’t say I’ve really taken a side on the issue, and Nonplayer really goes out of its way not to make value judgments -- it’s a lot more fun to just poke at the problem from different angles.

Nrama: Has your vision for Nonplayer evolved or changed since 2011? If so, how?

Simpson: The shape of the main story arc is mostly unchanged, though details and pacing change a lot as I build each issue. One problem I’ve had from the start is that my instinct is to shoehorn as much story as I can into each issue, and it ends up feeling rushed. So I’ve had to take a step back and recognize that the story needs to breathe a little bit. When I started drawing the second issue, the plan was to fit everything into 25 pages. I got embarrassingly far into the book before I realized that reading it was like drinking from a fire hose. I ended up spreading out to fill the full 30 pages, which let me have a few full-page spreads to let the reader catch their breath.

Nrama: Nonplayer #2 pushes further into the complexity and politics of this full immersion game, specifically the ethical ramifications of artificial intelligence. Did you research “roboethics” or do you draw from your work experience in gaming?

Simpson: Part of issue 2 focuses on the game developers who built Warriors of Jarvath, and those characters are definitely inspired by people I’ve worked with in the past. But as an artist, I know next to nothing about the actual nuts and bolts of AI in games.

That said, I am totally obsessed with the writings of AI theorists like Nick Bostrom, Ray Kurzweil, and Vernor Vinge. I had just read The Singularity Is Near by Kurzweil when Nonplayer first got underway, and I’m reading Superintelligence by Bostrom right now -- there’s just so much meat on that bone, narratively and philosophically. There are so many interesting questions about how we should even approach the problem -- either by digitally replicating and then enhancing human-like brains, or by letting something entirely alien assemble itself from completely novel components. Just trying to wrap my tiny human brain around what a superintelligence could encompass is a fun and frequently terrifying exercise. We really are in the process of making a god, and that’s exciting. And it’s nuts, of course.

Nonplayer takes place in a world that has already survived a “Singularity”-like cataclysm that’s referred to as “the Incident.” The second issue introduces characters from the National Artificial Intelligence Bureau, who are charged with making sure a second Incident never happens. AI is completely suppressed and is the source of a lot of paranoia in the world of Nonplayer.

Nrama: So exploring the ethics of AI and how it could bleed into the real world seems to be a main tenet of Nonplayer, would you expand upon that?

Simpson: Well, as I mentioned before, there are these two kinds of minds that we could make -- one kind that replicates and then evolves the human mind, and one that emerges in some completely different way and has even less in common with us than would, say, an infinitely-capable spider. Nonplayer actually depicts both types -- there are the nonplayer characters in Warriors of Jarvath, who have recently been given sentiency by a lonely game programmer. And then there’s C.U.B.E., the superintelligent AI-in-a-box used by the NAIB to monitor the internet for signs of rogue intelligences. So we have a bunch of digital people who are very much like us and are completely unaware that their world is “fake.” And then there is this entity that knows far more about everything than any individual human could ever know, but it’s kept on a very short leash -- though it has many inputs, its only means of communicating with the outside world is through a triad of human AI liaisons, all three of whom must cross-reference and endorse whatever C.U.B.E. says to the outside world.

In this context, we have a great deal more in common with the game characters, even though they inhabit a much different world from ours. And I’m enjoying playing with how relationships between these characters and their human counterparts play out across that digital divide. Then there’s the other fun exercise -- trying to hint at the dimensions and extent of C.U.B.E.’s abilities, as well as offering my own ideas about how we might solve the problem of keeping such an entity in check.

Nrama: There’s this moment in Nonplayer #2 where a citizen of Jarvath has a vision that is likely a sort of NPC glitch, but the other NPCs perceive it as magic. I immediately thought of ancient civilizations that didn’t have the scientific advances to understand the physical world. If you think about the game Warriors of Jarvath being a fairly young civilization, that’s a stark analogy. Can you expand upon your inspiration for that? Do you have any more profound analogies on civilization up your sleeve?

Simpson: Ha ha! Yeah, that’s sort of Nonplayer’s “The Gods Must Be Crazy” moment, though as inhabitants of a world with dragons, magic, and all sorts of fantasy arcana, they would probably find our world not necessarily more advanced, just different. That’s what issue 3 is all about.

But it’s fun to explore the slow dawning of the nonplayer characters’ realization that their entire existence has been dedicated to entertaining beings from another dimension who kill them for sport. And Dana’s parallel realization that she hasn’t just been playing an MMO, but that she’s actually been killing living people. That’s a heavy thing to process for everybody involved. I try to avoid the heavy-handed “deep thoughts” exposition, and just deal with the emotions and reactions that such a realization would cause. Many of which are quite bloody-minded, in the case of the game characters.

Nrama: You talked about switching from Photoshop for Nonplayer #1 to IllustStudio for Nonplayer #2. Let’s get technical for a moment, and talk about the pros and cons of that.

Simpson: I’m still not sure if that move was a good idea. In the details, IllustStudio offered a lot of cool drawing shortcuts. Since it was vector-based, I could scale things, change line weight, bend and smooth lines, and it was completely non-lossy -- there was none of the image degradation that comes with manipulating rastered lines in Photoshop.

But besides the time investment involved in mastering that new toolset, I discovered that all those bells and whistles actually had a deadening effect on my linework. I looked back at the “imperfect” linework from Photoshop, and all the little wiggles and imperfections somehow gave it a dynamism that I liked. And in support of the reprint, I just did a variant cover for Third Eye Comics, and for the first time in a long time, I drew it in Photoshop. And I liked the results!

So who knows -- I’ve also just picked up a copy of Manga Studio, which is an evolution of IllustStudio that seems to offer even more functionality. I am probably insane for even considering changing again. Maybe I’ll just stick with my old copy of Photoshop for now. But Manga Studio looks cool. But I shouldn’t. But I might.

Nrama: I imagine that many artists have had their process invaded by their personal life and the weight of expectation thus struggling with the goal versus what you actually have to show. That struggle was pretty profound for you, and then becoming a father provided some inspiration. On your blog you talked about your son and said, “I wanted to show him that there was value in making progress on something, even if that progress came in small increments.”

Simpson: Yeah, I got addicted to the praise that I received after the first book came out. It’s so intoxicating to go to a convention and see a long line of people you’ve never met, and they’re all there to see you! You don’t have to make a good impression, because they have already decided that you’re cool. So it’s just a parade of smiles and pats on the back. I could feel myself turning into a jerk. It’s so easy to get stuck in a perpetual first-person mode where you feel like you’re somehow important in the grand scheme of things.

This book got made by a very specific part of my brain -- a part that is reclusive and obsessive and maybe kind of misanthropic. And then the product of that introverted brain was co-opted and marketed by a completely different part of me, the part that seeks status and rewards. And even at the time that Nonplayer was “breaking,” I knew on some level that what I was doing was unfair or inauthentic. I was taking credit for something that wasn’t mine in a way -- like I’d found some artifact and then told people that I made it.

That probably sounds insane. I don’t think I’m schizophrenic. Anyway, I felt a little bit like No-Face from Spirited Away, offering all these little gold nuggets to people in exchange for food. And my ego really got out of control there, for a few months.

But then there was the withdrawal! The last three years have been this painful process of dealing with the absence of all that validation and easy dopamine. And that selfish part of me went through a phase of feeling like “hey, if I’m not ever going to get another reward for doing this, why am I killing myself making this incredibly labor-intensive thing?” It took a while for that voice to die down enough for me to realize that the little recluse -- the one who actually makes all the cool stuff -- was still there, still having ideas, still wanting to move forward at its own pace.

So I just had to find the time to let the book happen, and it slowly did happen. The outward-facing part of me fretted and worried and drove me completely nuts. But the creative part just kept plugging along. And after a while, I learned to just have some faith that everything was going to be okay, and that this process is more like gardening than, say, building a car. I can’t shout at the flowers to bloom, but I know they will bloom if I keep watering them.

And I’m happy that I’m at least starting to understand the dimensions of this problem, and I have a notion of the person I could become, armed with that knowledge. And I’m happy that this realization is coming to me so early in my son’s life, because I think it’s a perspective that’s worth sharing with him.

Nrama: Would you talk about the emergence of that motivation and those small increments, particularly the online group the Holy Order of Viking Draftspeople (#HOVD), and how sharing the struggle, as it were, helped you move through your creative tunnel until you saw light?

Simpson: Sometime in 2013, I realized that my solution to the day job dilemma was not sustainable. I’d come home from my video game job, and I’d have already given all my energy to game projects. And when you’re working from 9 to midnight, or whatever, it’s amazing how many distractions pop up during that timeframe. All of your friends are still awake, so there’s constant IM windows popping up… I was tired and unfocused, and things just weren’t moving very quickly.

So I had this idea that was almost a dare to myself, which was to try waking up at 3 A.M. every weekday, and to just get a solid three hours of work done before anybody was awake. And boy, did it work. It completely sucked to wake up that early, but the work went much more smoothly. And after Ian was born, it became pretty much the only way to move forward.

When I told people about this new setup, I discovered that it seemed hardcore to them, and I enjoyed that cachet. Most of my friends have their own creative projects that they’re trying to complete, and some of them seemed kind of tempted to try it themselves. So it evolved into this thing where we started to goad one another a little bit, send each other early-morning messages asking if they were up yet. And then I talked about it on my blog and gave it a name, and it turned out that there were quite a few other people in the world who wanted to give it a try.

Nonplayer #1 Third Eye Comics variant by Nate Simpson
Nonplayer #1 Third Eye Comics variant by Nate Simpson
Credit: Image Comics

For a lot of people, including me, it’s much easier to do something so bananas when you’re doing it as a group. And if you get to think of yourself as a Viking, that makes it seem so much cooler. Holy Order of People Who Can’t Keep Their Eyes Open at Company Meetings doesn’t have the same ring to it.

But now everybody’s up early and the IMs are becoming a problem again. I can’t win.

Nrama: Do you have any words of wisdom for artists entrenched in a similar struggle?

Simpson: You are your own worst enemy. It’s so easy to get frustrated with yourself when you don’t see quick progress with a creative project, and then real life intervenes and maybe you can’t work on it at all for a week or two. That’s when most people fall off the wagon, because we’ve all got that naysaying voice in our head that’s constantly reminding us how remote the finish line is, how minimal the chances of success, how little financial sense any of it makes. That voice is the problem, and it can’t really be silenced. But it can be ignored.

The way you do that is to expand your time horizon from days to years. Be patient. You’re digging through the prison wall with a spoon. You carve out a little time for your project and you make small gains. We live at a time of pro gamers, celebrity YouTubers, runaway hit webcomics, and freaking Notch. You’re going to see people succeeding quickly while seemingly making little effort all around you, and you’re going to wonder why you are building the Eiffel Tower out of toothpicks. It’s harder than ever to defer gratification, because nobody else seems to be, and it’s like you’re missing out on a fun party.

But you don’t stop. You get up, you dust yourself off, and you add another toothpick tomorrow morning. Life is surprisingly long, and when you finally do get to the finish line, you’ll have done something worthy of pride. Something that you can look back on at the end of your life, and feel like it was time well spent.

Also, you get to call yourself a Viking.

Nrama: I am reticent to ask this question, but I think everyone will want to know. So, I hope you’ll forgive me. Once Nonplayer #2 was complete, did you immediately begin work on #3 or have you been basking in the light of accomplishment?

Simpson: That feeling of accomplishment lasted a little less than one day for me. I have set aside a month for promoting the book, which is surprisingly time-consuming. Lots of emails to retailers and press, and on the side, drawing that variant cover for Third Eye Comics.

But I am fleshing out the script for issue 3 right now, just figuring out the pacing and a proper order for events. With issue 2, I finally got all the chess pieces on the board, and now the real fun starts. I’m pretty sure issue three will be the best one so far. I am excited about what I get to draw.

Nrama: Do you feel more confident in your process now or do you worry about having to wage the same creative battles again?

Simpson: You know, I haven’t ever found that making comics gets easier. It’s really, really hard. Sometimes infuriating. Just figuring out how to arrange panels on a page is an extremely difficult puzzle, because everything has to work compositionally, tonally, temporally -- all as a unified whole. It’s the sort of thing that would keep me up at night if I weren’t so sleepy all the time.

So there are the creative battles, and then there’s that larger battle of finding a way to devote more time to the book. And that ultimately means finding a way for comics to be my day job, which is an even more difficult puzzle. There are a few discussions going on in the background that may make it possible -- my dream is to find enough bandwidth that I can finish an issue a year and be done with the whole thing in five years. But the feasibility of that dream is at least partly contingent on how issue 2 does. So please buy my comic!

Nrama: One of the big things surrounding the buzz of issue #1 was that it got optioned as a film, but since then Warner Brothers has let their option lapse. So, are you still interested in seeing Nonplayer make it to the silver screen?

Simpson: It’s such a fun thing to fantasize about. I’ve got playlists that I listen to while I imagine how certain scenes would look in motion. I think it would be indescribably cool to see a girl really ride a giant flying cat into battle. That, plus giant robots!

And of course Hollywood always looms as that potential deus ex machina that could magically emancipate me from having a day job. So yes, I would love to see Nonplayer turned into a movie.

As always, there are lots of discussions going on right now, but it’s difficult to tell what’s real in that world. You basically have no idea how serious anybody really is until you have a contract in your hands. Issue 2 seems to be causing an uptick in activity in that area, so we’ll see what happens!

Nrama: HeroesCon will be your sole convention appearance this year. And printed copies of Nonplayer #1 are pretty hard to get a hold of. So, I assume you will have copies of Nonplayer #1, and obviously Nonplayer #2, on hand at HeroesCon for the ravenous fans that can’t get them at their comic shop?

Simpson: Yes! The first issue is getting a third printing on April 1, and the order cutoff for that is Monday, March 9 -- so please bug your local comic shop about it. I have this worry that issue 2 is going to come out and we’ll run out of copies of #1 like we did the first time around. I don’t want people selling these things for forty bucks on Ebay. I’m hoping we have plenty of supply to meet demand this time around. We put all-new pinups in the back, too, and I think they’re amazing.

The second issue hits stands on June 3, and I’ll be doing signings at Comics Dungeon in Seattle on the evening of June 3, and at Third Eye Comics in Annapolis on Saturday, June 13. There’s a new variant cover that we put together with Third Eye Comics, so that’s quite a special event.

The week after that, I’ll be at HeroesCon. I’ll have nice piles of both #1 and #2 on hand, as well as a bunch of new posters. Including a truly gigantic poster of the two-page spread from issue 1. I hope somebody buys some of this stuff so I don’t have to drag all of it back through the airport.

And of course all of this stuff will be available on my online store at nonplayer.storenvy.com.

Nrama: Finally, is there anything you’d like to say to those Nonplayer fans?

Simpson: I’m just so grateful for all of their patience, and for all of their reminders for me to be patient. My fans are like a bunch of worried moms who seem to care more about my sanity than about the release schedule, which is pretty unusual in the world of comics. I got very lucky. This book wouldn’t exist without them.

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