With Greg Pak's newest work, everyone can be a storytelling visionary -- that is, if they have the Vision Machine.
Set in a world where everyone gains access to a new form of filmmaking device that allows your eyes to act as cameras, Vision Machine is part parable, part alternate history, focusing on privacy, social media and mankind's overwhelming urge to tell the next big hit.
Funded by the Ford Foundation, written by Pak and drawn by Jimmy Olsen artist R.B. Silva, the writer spoke at the New York Comic Con on Sunday to discuss his new work. Before the con, we sat down with the writer to talk about his characters, the importance of storytelling, and how digital media and copyright law are making Vision Machine a truly unique concept in the comics industry.
Newsarama: Greg, just to start off with, what kicked off Vision Machine as a concept for you? How'd you get involved with the Ford Foundation on this book?
Greg Pak: Orlando Bagwell of the Ford Foundation had a vision of a graphic novel that could help independent media makers imagine the technological, social, and political changes that'll transform the field over the next fifty years. He knew of my background as a comics writer, a sci fi guy, and an independent filmmaker and figured I might just be the right person for the job.
I've been obsessed with the digital revolution ever since I got my hands on a MiniDV camcorder and Final Cut Pro in my last year of film school. Without digital media and the internet, I would never have been able to make and distribute my feature film "Robot Stories." And I've continued to be obsessed with questions of digital distribution since entering the comics world. (Yeah, I'm the dork who live-tweeted his iPad unboxing back in April.)
So the idea of telling a story set fifty years in the future in which a mind-blowing piece of personal technology changes everything had enormous appeal for me.
Nrama: You work as a filmmaker in addition to your comics work, and I'm curious as to your thoughts as far as how film works as a social force rather than "just" entertainment. Without giving too much away as far as the story goes, why do you feel filmmaking is important not just to you, but the world?
Pak: Most of us change not because we've reasoned things out, but because we have emotional experiences that ring true for us (e.g. the homophobe who only changes when his/her son/daughter comes out). Great movies (and comics and books) have a very special power because they operate emotionally, involving us in the struggles of characters who feel completely real to us. So every time you create non-stereotypical characters and stories, there's a chance that without even realizing it, folks can have their perspective tweaked in some tiny, positive way.
At the same time, the minute a ham-handed message takes over the story, everything falls apart. There's a bit of reference to that in the first issue of "Vision Machine" when a trio of film school friends talk about the next big thing that Sprout Computers is about to unleash upon the world. The documentarian says he's hoping for something that will actually bring people together in the real world. The class clown rolls his eyes and says his pillow needs a pillow.
Nrama: It's funny, because in a lot of ways, I think your story is touching upon a very real trend. When anybody with an iPhone can record and edit video, isn't everybody becoming a filmmaker? How do you think that affects storytelling, or even the public discourse?
Pak: You've hit on something key here. It's become a cliché, but it's true: today almost anyone can make a movie that has the potential to be seen by millions. We've seen Youtube vids launch indie bands into semi-super-stardom, take out Senate candidates, and amuse hundreds of millions with adorably accented English children biting each other.
But the true revolution hasn't yet happened. The technology still doesn't allow for the immersive experience that suits many kinds of longer form storytelling. And despite the ever-increasing consumption of online video, it's a huge, ongoing struggle for creators to figure out how to make a living out of all this.
"Vision Machine" imagines a world in which some of those big questions are finally being addressed. And the results may or may not be as gorgeously utopian as we might imagine...
Nrama: Okay, after that last question, I'll rein myself back in to talking about the book. As far as the characters of this book go, you've got a handful of young film school grads whose craft is changed in a major way by some burgeoning technology. As far as these people as characters, what can you tell us about your protagonists' various personalities?
Pak: Dave is the social documentarian, Jane is the dreamer, and Buddy is the class clown, who will go through some pretty huge changes over the course of the three issue story. And of course there's an unrequited love story kicking around in there somewhere.
Nrama: Now, Vision Machine, on its surface, seems to have an almost utopian bent, taking this speculative look at a potential future where everybody is a filmmaker and everybody is connected. But I know that the most interesting stories have some conflict to them. Can you talk a little bit about the dark side of what this society might be facing?
Pak: Early in the book, Dave talks about wanting this magic piece of tech to bring us all together. But it's an open question just how together we really should be. And who's controlling the means via which that marvelous togetherness is realized? There's also the question of just how wonderful it would be if every dreamer could show us what's in his or her head. For fear of saying too much, I'll just say the plot thickens in "Vision Machine" #2, coming next month.
Nrama: Let's talk a little bit about R.B. Silva, who's getting some real buzz lately with the Jimmy Olsen backup he's doing with Nick Spencer. How'd you two get together, and what are the strengths that you feel he brings to this project?
Pak: R.B. did some pages for the "War Machine" book I was writing last year -- and he absolutely blew me away with his clean, fluid, energetic style. When it came time to pick an artist for "Vision Machine," he sprang to mind as someone who could rock sleek tech and futuristic environments while creating emotionally resonant, expressive characters grounded in reality. R.B. also has a great sense of humor, which is shining through right now in both the Jimmy Olsen stories and "Vision Machine."
Nrama: I understand that you're going to be releasing this book via Comixology -- what made that a good platform for you?
Pak: The support of the Ford Foundation has made it possible to release this book for free, via a Creative Commons non-commercial license. And the awesome David Steinberger at Comixology saw the attraction of featuring this kind of book on his site. The whole idea is to get the book into as many hands as possible, and Comixology is a phenomenal platform for introducing new readers to the ease and glories of digital comics.
Nrama: Considering this book is all about the future of media, what's your stance on how digital comics are going to impact the industry moving forward?
Pak: My big hope is that digital comics will expand the market by making it insanely easy for anyone with a passing interest in a character or storyline to immediately buy and enjoy the comic without leaving the house. If we as creators and publishers take advantage of the opportunity, we can reach thousands of new readers. Eventually, we could see digital sales helping make a wider range of books economically viable both in digital and print form.
I'm definitely hoping "Vision Machine" can play its own small role in the process. The fact that it's free means that it's an easy sell for new readers. And hopefully once people are downloading it from the Comixology site or whereever they find it, they'll poke around a bit and maybe buy another comic or two. Like "War Machine" or "Planet Hulk," for example. I hear those are pretty good. ;-)
Nrama: Something that particularly interested me about this project is that you're putting it under a Share Alike license. For those who don't know what that is, can you explain a bit about what that means, and walk us through a bit about what made you decide to do this?
Pak: I retain the copyright to the book. But I'm releasing it under a Creative Commons license that allows people to redistribute the book and even remix, tweak, or build upon the work -- as long as their use is non-commercial, they credit Pak Man Productions, and they release any derivatives under the same license.
From the beginning, Orlando and I thought this was the right way to release a book that deals with the challenges of copyright, trademark, and free culture.
If you're interested in this and are attending the New York Comic-Con, definitely come to the "Vision Machine" panel on Sunday at 2:30 pm, which will be moderated by the great Andy Ihnatko. Other panelists include Orlando, Comixology's David Steinberger, and the brilliant Nina Paley, who's released her film "Sita Sings the Blues" under a Creative Commons license. There's a great interview with Nina online at http://creativecommons.org/weblog/entry/14760.
Nrama: For those who still are curious about Vision Machine, what else would you tell them to get them on board? Are there any moments you're excited about that you could tease?
Pak: Hey, how about the full first issue for free? Is that enough of a tease?Vision Machine is available to be downloaded for free at ComiXology, and can be read in its entirety on Newsarama! In addition, those looking for more information on the book can follow Sprout's CEO Liz Evers on Twitter at @Sproutboss. For those who wish to send letters that will be printed in Vision Machine #2 in November, send questions with the words "OKAY TO PRINT" in the email to email@example.com. What do you think of the first issue?