And every now and then, you find a project by a comics creator that’s just…rather different.
Case in point, The Lost Ones, a recently released graphic novel written by Steve Niles, with art by Gary Panter, graffiti artist Dr. Revolt, Kime Buzzelli, and the art and design duo known as Morning Breath. While the mix of creators involved may make you think that the OGN is published by the likes of a Fantagraphics or maybe Drawn + Quarterly, it was actually commissioned by Zune Arts, a program spinning out of Microsoft’s Zune music and entertainment brand.
As far as boilerplate, Zune Arts’ mission statement reads like this:
Zune Arts is a program that values emerging artists and art in all forms and provides a platform for artists of all kinds to share their work. At the heart of Zune Arts are ideas about friendship, discovery, connecting and sharing, which will serve as both a guide for artists’ work and an ethic for all Zune Arts does.
Yeah – a handful of pretty non-corporate creators working for one of the largest corporations on the planet.
As for the story itself, The Lost Ones is described as: the adventures of four friends — Duncan, Roxy, Rasheed and Cynthia — whose seemingly harmless day of extreme planet jumping turns into a mind-blowing, white-knuckle race for their lives to get back home. They find that home is no longer where they left it and the alien race, hell-bent on destroying them, isn’t getting any friendlier.
We spoke with Niles for more.
Newsarama: Steve – this is quite the line up for a project…how did you wind up here in the first place?
Steve Niles: This one is a really strange thing, because I actually got this gig because I used to be in a band.
NRAMA: Do tell.
SN: The woman who used to do marketing at Dark Horse recommended me to Roger Gastman, who does Swindle magazine, who was in charge of putting this project together. When she called him to recommend me as a writer, he was listening to my old band, Gray Matter on his headphones. He joked that it was too weird, called me, offered me the gig, and I got to work. It’s the strangest thing I’ve ever worked on, but I really had fun. It’s a four-part science fiction story that’s a relay race. I wrote one script, and then we broke it up into four parts which were handed off to the artists for them to do their own thing with it.
NRAMA: When they offered you the project, did they mention the artists that they had on it, or was the lineup something that evolved as you worked?
SN: They vaguely knew the type of artists that they wanted on it. They knew that they were not going to be going after traditional comic artists. They were thinking of New York graffiti artists, underground artists and folks like that. At the time, I knew there was a chance of getting Gary Panter, so I was already thrilled at the prospect.
NRAMA: So what were you told in terms of guidelines?
SN: They were literally the craziest guidelines I ever had. The first was: don’t mention the product, because it’s not a commercial, so I never talk about Microsoft or the Zune product.
But as for the guidelines, they wanted me to write a comic that brought up particular feelings, like creativity and working together. They gave me a vocabulary list, and points that they wanted to hit, but there was no story suggestion. They didn’t know if they wanted horror, science fiction or what – they only knew they wanted these particular ideas in it. I didn’t know what to do for the longest time.
NRAMA: So how do you come out the other side with a science fiction story with four characters that have an adventure through space and time?
SN: I stumbled into it [laughs]. What I think helped me was that I wrote four completely different stories, and everybody liked the one that did time travel, so I pitched the idea of following these characters and we’d see what happens.
It’s kind of a weird concept for time travel – that, instead of messing with the past, each trip creates a new earth from that point on. It’s very “comic book,” I guess. And they really went for it – that was one of the other concepts that they wanted in there: “infinite possibilities.” There’s nothing more infinite than creating a new earth every time you visit the past.
But then, what I think was really cool was that I think I ended up writing a real traditional science fiction comic book story that got handed to all these graffiti style artists. It came out so much better than I ever expected. Each artist really lent their own style and form to it.
NRAMA: So tease out the story a little more – you’ve got four characters making jumps through time…
SN: It’s classic misadventure. It’s about these four kids who are tech heads that are trying out an experiment. It’s set at some ambiguous point in the future, and they’re just messing around. They mess around once, and they screw things up, the second time in, they make things worse, the third time, they almost destroy the earth – it keeps getting worse and worse until they figure out what they’ve been doing.
Oh, and for my fans, especially, not one person dies. It’s a very upbeat and positive thing.
NRAMA: And the artists were assigned after you’d broken down the chapters?
SN: Right – I had no idea who was going to wind up on what story, and then seeing the chapters interpreted was even better. For each story, I did a two-page blast off spread, because I wanted to see what they would do. Those are my favorite parts of the book – each one is completely different. It was just really neat seeing how each of the artists would handle it.
NRAMA: It’s pretty odd to see a commercial project like this turn out to be rather unique and different in the end rather than having it be, say, Superman and the Radio Shack Kids…I doubt that something like this could’ve been or would have been put together by anyone else..
SN: That’s what’s really funny – it’s probably the most artsy thing I’ve ever done, but it’s for a major corporation. It’s probably the most corporate thing I’ve ever done, but at the same time, it’s the most freedom I’ve ever had.
So where can you find a copy? According to Zune, 42,000 copies have been printed up, and “will be available free at select comic book and retail boutiques nationwide. In addition, 1,250 signed limited-edition collector’s copies with silk-screened covers packaged with artwork from the novel will be produced for select distribution.” So…good luck?
A preview can be found here, and you can bet that you’ll be able to find copies at the remaining stops on The Lost Ones signing tour:
July 18, Philadelphia, Brave New Worlds: Gary Panter, Steve Niles
July 19, Baltimore, Atomic Books: Dr. Revolt, Gary Panter, Steve Niles
July 20, Washington, D.C., Big Planet Comics: Gary Panter, Steve Niles
July 31, Los Angeles, Meltdown: Kime Buzzelli, Steve Niles
Aug. 2, Chicago, Chicago Comics and Quimby’s Bookstore: Dr. Revolt, Gary Panter
Two dates and locations to be determined, San Francisco: Gary Panter.