James Tynion IV is returning to the apocalypse.
With Cognetic, the second story of a trilogy, Tynion is exploring a very different end to the world than in the trilogy’s first chapter, Memetic. While Tynion calls Memetic “sci-fi/horror”, he calls the much more action-oriented Cognetic a kind of “psychic Die Hard."
Newsarama spoke with Tynion ahead of Cognetic’s release to talk about the book’s sci-fi/action roots, including why Tynion is so fascinated with the end of the world, and what makes artist Eryk Donovan such a perfect partner to explore different visions of the apocalypse.
Newsarama: James, let’s start off with an easy question. Tell me what Cognetic is all about.
James Tynion, IV: Cognetic started because basically a few years ago, I set down – it was a challenge to myself – I had come up with the concept of The Woods, this was still while I was mostly doing superhero work, and The Woods wasn’t going to come out for another five months, so I really wanted to push myself to come up with some ideas that were outside the box that were very interesting, that cut to some of my core fears about humanity.
And what I came up with were three apocalypses, basically. The first apocalypse was the story that ended up becoming Memetic, the series that I did with Eryk Donovan last fall. Memetic was about the idea of an idea online that spreads so quickly that it destroys the world, all starting with a single image. Cutting right to the core of the idea that with the internet an idea can spread so quickly and so dangerously that we cannot react to it before we know whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing.
The second idea, my second apocalypse, was the series that ultimately became Cognetic. So now we’re here, ready to bring about the apocalypse a second time. The original title of Cognetic was “Superorganism.” Part of the reason we changed it was to make it a bit closer in sound to Memetic to create this arc of a trilogy that we’re trying to do. But the real idea is that of superorganisms, which is the concept of a being created out of multiple living beings.
And technically, it’s what we are, as humans. Every human is like, we’re a hive mind of many, many different organisms. There are trillions of individual beings that are part of the whole that makes up a human body. But you can also make the argument that society, as a whole, is a singular superorganism, the way each of us are, individually, parts of this larger being. So the core idea of Cognetic is, what happens when the hive mind switches back on? What happens when a being comes in, that can take control of the hive mind, and make an entire city, or an entire country, or potentially the entire world a singular thinking, moving being? And that’s really where the core horror of Cognetic rests. The story itself I view as kind of a psychic Die Hard. This being comes out of hiding after many hundreds of years into New York City, and takes control of the entire Empire State Building. Literally every being in the Empire State Building is now part of a singular whole. And that is where our story begins, and it’s about the being that created that, and then also the human beings that are going to try to fight back and take back individuality, and see if individuality actually exists and is possible in this crazy, sci-fi action story that we’re putting together.
Nrama: What can you tell us about those human characters that are going against this superorganism?
Tynion: Well, our core figure is the assistant to the director of the FBI, and she is in New York City ready to help out. She’s sort of the secret brains behind the operation. This guy was a political appointment, he doesn’t know how people work, or how to really run the show at all, and he’s always relied on his assistant to sort of manipulate everything. So this is a character who is very comfortable with the idea of bending people to her will, and sort of shaping them to make for a better world. Which is fundamentally the same thing as this superorganism that is coming into the scenario.
Our main character Annie, she is this person we can all relate to. She isn’t doing this in terms of some mastermind, negative force. She really is trying to make things better for everyone, and make the world better for every individual being on that world. And, you know, she has ties to this larger being that become apparent in the first issue and beyond. But that’s really where the story begins. This figure coming into New York City, and Annie, the assistant to the director of the FBI realizing what this being is, and what it means for him to have suddenly reawakened and come back for humanity.
Nrama: Cognetic deals with the concepts of individuality and control, and the loss of those things. What drew you to explore the idea of those things being taken away?
Tynion: I just really think that’s frightening. There’s a sense of that in a lot of my work, the idea of what happens when you try to take too much control, when you try to control every aspect of a situation in the way that you might want to, and the way that reality tries to take that aspect of control away from you.
So the comfort of having total control over everything is a deep, comforting feeling. But it’s also something that is deeply dangerous, and it’s dangerous to the people who actually try to wield that power, and it’s very dangerous for the people that power is wielded over. Like, what happens when you just become a pawn, or just a little bacteria in the stomach of this larger being? It’s a concept that really unsettles me, and I want to poke at it, and make other people unsettled by it.
Nrama: You mentioned Cognetic is a spiritual sequel to Memetic, as part of this trilogy of apocalypses. Why explore apocalypses specifically for an entire trilogy?
Tynion: I’ve always really liked escalation. And totally insane escalation, and I get to play around with that a bit in my superhero books, like sometimes you start with a character lighting a match on the street, and then you can have all of Gotham City burning. That kind of dramatic escalation, you can really cut almost right to the core of the concept by showing what would happen if it just unraveled on this huge global scale.
And also, the post-apocalyptic genre has really always been something that’s fascinated people. But a lot of the post-apocalyptic and apocalyptic stories we see these days are still playing with older apocalypses. We might have the zombie apocalypse, that’s an idea that’s been going on really as long as human culture has existed, but more specifically, in terms of modern culture, ever since Night of the Living Dead. And then in terms of nuclear apocalypse, or the things that are sort of cousins to nuclear apocalypse like a monster apocalypse, like coming from Godzilla, which is, once again, a nuclear allegory, that’s sort of where it all rests.
So, part of the challenge was trying to come up with an apocalypse story that we really haven’t seen before, and build it out of contemporary fears, or older fears, but things that we haven’t really seen explored to the full explanation of the world ending all around us. And then, you know, there’s also the fun of creating a little fictional world and destroying it. I’m enough of a sociopath to admit that I enjoy doing that quite a bit. The structure we developed for Memetic, these three oversized issues, that we will be repeating with Cognetic, it’s a sort of a perfect vehicle for these kinds of stories. We get to see the pure escalation of the concept, and then pull away, and let people take what they’re going to take out of it.
And this is going to end differently than the previous one. There is an extreme level of escalation towards the end, but just because it’s an apocalypse story doesn’t mean that at the end of the last page is every human being in giant pillars of flesh, dead, like we might’ve done in our previous apocalypse. This is a very different story. The first one is also very much sci-fi/horror, and I would say this one is much more sci-fi/action/thriller, but with even a touch more sci-fi in terms of the strangeness, so I’m very excited to see what people think. It’s one of my stranger concepts, I have to say, and this is coming from someone who just ended the world with a picture of a sloth last year, so I hope people enjoy what we’ve put together.
Nrama: You mentioned the expanded format of three issues at 48 pages each. What are the challenges that go along with crafting longer individual issues? Is that something that poses a different challenge than writing shorter, 20 page issues?
Tynion: I mean the greatest challenge is honestly just balancing it into your work flow, month to month. I work on a lot of books between BOOM! And DC Comics, and typically you can sort of allot a certain amount of space that you can reliably finish a book, and this is twice the size of a normal issue, in terms of actual story content issue to issue. And there will be backmatter in the same way there was in Memetic, as well. So that’s always a concern, but at the same time, it’s really a matter of structuring, and a three-act structure in three oversized issues is actually pretty easy to tackle, once you have all the pieces out on the board.
In terms of a storytelling problem, frankly, I always wish I had extra pages issue to issue. I think all writers sort of do. You hit a scene, and it’s sort of like, “Oh, this two panel sequence, if I could make that a three page character moment, I would love to do that.” And here I get to do that, but I also have room to really draw out the horror in each page of something going terribly, terribly wrong.
Nrama: Let’s talk about Eryk Donovan, your artist. Obviously you teamed with him for Memetic, and you’re teaming with him again for Cognetic. What makes him such an ideal collaborator for these books?
Tynion: This is actually our fourth collaboration. We started on a short piece for the In The Dark anthology that was released through Kickstarter, and published by IDW. We just did a short, 15 page story in that anthology and I just immediately connected with his work. Coming out of that, I took him over to do a series on Thrillbent, The House In The Wall, co-written by my UFOlogy co-writer Noah J. Yuenkel. And that really helped show that this is a guy I really, really work with well.
When someone can bring something to life in the way you imagined it, it creates this short-hand. Once he came on to Memetic, that really has sort of been the pinnacle of what we’ve done together, and continuing this apocalypse trilogy that I’ve wanted to tackle, I needed to continue working on it with Eryk and bring him in as my co-creator on the book. We’ve been talking about working together on more really since Memetic first came out. This is a guy that I just absolutely adore working with.
In terms of his actual work, horror for me, my greatest influences come from manga, in terms of horror comics. And a core piece of that is reaction shots, actually feeling these characters’ emotions on the page. And it’s something that Eryk leans into so well. There’s an expressiveness to his linework and the faces of his characters that you immediately relate to, and they feel like the characters that I wanted to come out of my head and onto the page. He’s my absolute partner in this process. I love working with him. He’s really incredible, and I think this is the beginning of a long and storied career in this industry, for him.
Nrama: Speaking of your other work, you’ve done a lot of work with BOOM!, with The Woods and Memetic. What makes them such a perfect place for your creator-owned work?
Tynion: It’s the energy of the company more than anything else. I think BOOM! looks at the comic book stands in your local comic shop, and rather than say “How do we capitalize on these trends, and try to make the books that people are already showing they want to read now?” they’re trying to figure out, “What is the comic book stand going to look like ten years from now? Let’s do that today.”
There’s a youth and energy to the entire company that is energizing just to be around. I love sitting down with the people who run the company, Ross Richie, Matt Gagnon, Filip Sablik, and talking about the future of comics. It’s those conversations that make me sure I’ve made the right choice in where I bring my creator-owned work to life. And it’s great, because I have two very, very happy homes right now. I have all of my work at DC Comics, which gives me a great outlet for the superhero world, and all of my work in Gotham, and Constantine: The Hellblazer, and other things I can’t even talk about yet. With BOOM! I just get to unload every crazy story idea.
And it comes down also to the fabric of how these books are created, down to how we released Memetic, three oversized issues. That’s what I came to them with, it’s what I wanted the book to be. And it was an experiment – typically BOOM! works in four issue story-arcs, but I made my case for how this worked, and it turned out to be a successful play for them and they wanted to give me the room to experiment, to try something totally new. And that’s the real feel of walking through the BOOM! offices. It’s a room full of people that sort of want to break the rules of comics and figure out what the next great trends are going to be, what the next great formats are going to be. They’re so forward looking that I really do adore working with them.
Nrama: If you had absolute control over the world, if it was your superorganism, what would you do? And do you think it would be a good or bad thing?
Tynion: Oh, it would be such a bad thing. I definitely have the impulse in me. My high school guidance counselor once referred to me as a puppet master for my group of friends and amazingly, I am still friends with most of them, but they remind me constantly that I was a bit of a nightmare in high school. Sometimes I have the instinct in my head that I know what’s best for people, and it comes out of a genuine place of wanting to make things good for them, and put them on happy paths that will make their lives better, but it’s still trying to wrestle some control away from them, and take control of their futures, which is not my job.
So, it’s a concept that I’ve explored from a lot of different angles. The Woods is also very, very much about that kind of control, and the character Adrian, over the first year, and now we’re seeing the repercussions of someone who did try to shape a whole group of people and see how they’ve fallen apart now that he’s been removed from the board. So, this is a concept I keep hitting from a lot of angles because it is true. It’s something that, I should know better, but if I had the button I had to press to take over the world sitting in front of me, I would hit it without even thinking. And it wouldn’t go well, but I would do my damndest.