In 2002, Warren Ellis and Phil Hester planned to do a creator-owned series together but it fell through. Now, the duo reunite and set sail again with AfterShock Comics' Shipwreck.
Described by Ellis as what would happen if Cormac McCarthy and Samuel Beckett wrote a science fiction road movie, Shipwreck begins when "a very unusual and very secret shipwreck" leaves a sole survivor named Dr. Jonathan Shipwright. But he's not marooned at sea, but rather a distant reality - and the saboteur who caused the accident is out to finish the job.
With Shipwreck scheduled to debut October 5, Newsarama spoke with Phil Hester about his reunion with Ellis, what made him break his vow to only draw his own creator-owned stories, and more about this actual shipwreck.
Newsarama: Phil, what can you tell us about Shipwreck?
Phil Hester: It's the kind of book I've been waiting to do for a long time. I love both horror and science fiction, and Warren has managed to combine both of them into something that is both disturbing and rewarding in a far-ranging way. My goal is to present the images he calls for, while at the same time finding visual themes and stylistic flourishes that can underpin and echo the story's intent. As for what it's about, I've been telling people it has the flavor of The Prisoner, but with much heavier horror elements. Maybe Jacob's Ladder by way of Solaris? It's heady, scary, gruesome, and smart. I just hope I can keep up.
Nrama: And just who is Dr. Jonathan Shipwright exactly?
Hester: Part of the appeal of the book is no one really knows, not even Shipwright himself. We follow him as he tries to piece his history back together after a catastrophic accident involving a technology he's invented. All he knows is, somewhere out in this unfamiliar, bewildering, grotesque reality he finds himself trapped in, there is a saboteur who seems to be responsible for not only the accident, but his current half-life state.
Nrama: What is he after?
Hester: The saboteur, naturally, but also deeper answers about just who he is and how he got so messed up. He truly is marooned in a reality that is only passingly familiar, and extremely dangerous.
Nrama: And what is he fending off that looks to get him?
Hester: Well, in the first two issues we see him drowned, burned, stabbed, swarmed by spiders and haunted by flocks of hectoring birds. You could say the entire world he finds himself in is against him. How do you escape a planet? Maybe Shipwright actually knows the answer to this question, and that makes him a valuable commodity.
Nrama: Who else is in this series besides Shipwright?
Hester: Bizarre figures drift in and out of his journey, but the most prominent to date seems to be Bank, a bar owner and undertaker given to a thoroughly grotesque brand of mortuary science. He also stumbles across Val, a beautiful, enigmatic ritual executioner who seems to know more about his past than he does.
Nrama: Art-wise, what are you aiming to do here?
Hester: Trying, as I said earlier, to keep up with the tone of Warren's scripts. Warren's been at this a long time, so he knows when to let the art carry the story, and we have long stretches without dialogue where the art absolutely has to carry the story. I'm thankful for that chance to engage in some meaningful storytelling that goes beyond mere stage direction. I've been drawing superhero and humor books a lot lately, so getting back to a gig where I can use a more organic, itchy style fans of my alternative work are familiar with has been welcome. The book reads like a nightmare, so my goal is to make it look like one, too. Make it inescapable.
Thankfully I'm abetted by my inker Eric Gapstur and colorist Mark Englert, who have both modified their styles to give the book a look unlike anything on the stands. Adventurous readers will be rewarded.
Nrama: You and Warren have collaborated before, including on an aborted Oni press series titled The Operation. Can you tell us about your relationship, and how you two came together to do this?
Hester: I'm mostly just a fan of his work. I'm sad The Operation never blossomed, as it was a joy to draw, but a divorce with the publisher (now reconciled) over a different book I'd written sort of ended my working relationship with them. Joe Pruett, one of the founders of Aftershock, has been a good friend for a long time, and he knew I was a big fan of Warren's work, so when he landed the project he came to me. It all fell together surprisingly quickly after that.
Nrama: After a stint primarily writing, for the past while you've been diving back heavily into drawing and working with other writers. This question isn't specific to Shipwreck, but what brought on you returning to the drawing board full-time?
Hester: [Laughs] That's a good question. I decided a little while ago to only draw what I had written, but when Joe said, "Yeah, but what about Warren Ellis?" I crumbled. I still spend a good amount of my workday writing. I'm currently writing books for Image, Oni, Dynamite and Aftershock, with occasional projects for DC now and then. It's just that Shipwreck really, really was the right book at the right time.
Nrama: Between creator-owned and work-for-hire, I believe you and Warren both have worked for pretty much every publisher out there. With the prospect of a creator-owned series together, it would seem most any publisher would be interest: why'd you decide to go with Mike Marts, Joe Pruett and their upstart AfterShock Comics?
Hester: It's a very unique place in that it's equally committed to creator's rights and paying a living wage to those creators while they work on the projects. That is exceedingly rare. I mean, many publishers offer freedom, but they lack that traditional editorial infrastructure creators - like me - who don't have a mind for promotion, ship dates, sales figures, etc. need to thrive. Then you have publishers who can pay creators, but are so hidebound by corporate policies they are hesitant to trust those same creators to make artistic decisions. Aftershock has staked out new ground. Mike and Joe have seen it all. They know how to put together comics. They also know the best way to get great work is to keep creators happy and fed, then let them do their thing.