20 years ago if you wanted to be a sword-wielding warrior or a powerful mage you had to live out your fantasies fumbling through a Dungeons & Dragons guidebook with friends. Now you can live out those fantasies in video games. Think about the huge leap in technology that’s occurred in just 20 years – and then imagine what it could look like twenty years from now.
In the upcoming Image series Nonplayer, artist Nate Simpson introduces readers to a twenty-something named Dana Simpson who isn’t in a hurry to grow up in real life, but spends hours leveling up in games. Dana splits time from her hum-drum life in a time several years in the future and the engrossing sword-and-sorcery realm inside a MMORPG video game. Although she’s years past her 18th birthday, she continues to live at home with her mom and escapes to the video game world where the tables are turned and she’s an elite warrior. But when she messes with the wrong character in this fantasy world, she begins to feel the effects not just online but in her real life as well.
Set for debut on April 6, Nonplayer is the auspicious debut from a creator that comes to comics with years of experience as a video game artist. You may not know the games Nate Simpson worked on, but you’ll know his skill when you get a look at the series. Comics’ heavyweights as far reaching as Frank Cho, Warren Ellis and Moebius have expressed admiration for his work – and it looks like when the comic is on shelves the world might too.
Newsarama: What’s on your drawing board today, Nate?
Nate Simpson: A floating gothic Lolita with mechanical fairy wings, surrounded by tiny cartoon animals. Yep, the second issue of Nonplayer has some weirdness in it.
Nrama: Set up the comic for us, Nate. What is it about?
Simpson: Nonplayer follows the exploits of a mid-21st century girl who divides her time between delivering tamales for a living and slaying virtual baddies inside a full-immersion multiplayer online game called Warriors of Jarvath. When she assassinates the wife of celebrity game character King Heremoth, he reacts with an unusual amount of rage, considering he's a non-living entity. It turns out that the characters in the game have achieved sentience, and they don't like being hunted for sport. The tables are soon turned, and Dana ends up being the focus of Heremoth's vendetta.
Nrama: The lead in all this is a woman named Dana Stevens; can you tell us about her?
Simpson: Sure. Dana's kind of given up on achieving anything in the real world. She builds her own virtual worlds as a hobby and is quite good at it, but after getting a single rejection letter from a game design company, she's retreated into make-believe worlds where her actions feel consequential. The only reason she even bothers with a job in meatspace is to help with her little sister's school tuition. She's the sort of person who hurts people's feelings accidentally because she can't imagine how someone as unimportant as her could be taken seriously by anybody.
Nrama: And tell us about her alter ego in the game?
Simpson: Inside Jarvath, Dana is an ace assassin. Armed to the teeth and dressed to the nines, she's got a much more outsized personality inside the game -- she even has a semi-flirtatious friendship with a guy whom she has never met in the real world. And of course, because there's no real danger for her in Jarvath, she's completely fearless. A big part of the ongoing story will be how that fearlessness gets carried forward into her real life.
Nrama: We’ve danced around it – but what is the game Warriors of Jarvath about?
Simpson: I did my best to take the sword-and-sorcery setting of games like World of Warcraft and Aion and extend it forward a few decades. I imagine that as the real world becomes progressively more dilapidated, our virtual worlds will become correspondingly prettier, so Jarvath is pretty easy on the eyes.
Nrama: In Nonplayer you switch up between two worlds – the real world, and the game world. Can you tell us about the differences?
Simpson: Well, the real world in Nonplayer isn't exactly dystopian, but it's incrementally worse than the one we live in today. One of the technologies explored in Nonplayer is augmented reality -- people have these digital overlays called "LifeSkins" that can project a personalized environment over the real world. So for example, if you felt nostalgia for the 1970s, you could just make the world look like it did in Close Encounters, right down to the hairstyles. And because everybody's eyeballs have migrated to these digital worlds, the real world has gotten pretty run-down. Nobody's looking at it, anymore. Except poor people.
Nrama: When there’s a writer and an artist there’s normally a script, but when the artist writes it himself its sometimes quite different. How do you approach writing and drawing Nonplayer?
Simpson: Writing and drawing don't mix too well for me, so I usually work on one or the other for a whole day. It takes some energy to switch between modes. For Nonplayer, I wrote out a step outline for the entire story arc, then wrote a detailed movie-style script for the first few issues. Once that was done, I switched into drawing mode to rough out the layouts and do the final artwork. And by the time that was finished, I'd been living with the original dialogue for some time, and in many cases the artwork suggested changes in the way characters said certain things. So there was one last dialogue pass to get everything ship-shape.
Nrama: Are you doing the inking, coloring and lettering or are you getting help in those departments?
Simpson: Because Nonplayer is drawn in Photoshop, there isn't really a distinction between inking and penciling. I guess you could say I just start out inking, but I can erase as many times as I want. I do the coloring in Photoshop, as well. The lettering has been a bit of a challenge -- I started out with an all-uppercase comic font, but then started to like the way lower-case fonts looked with the artwork. I ended up settling on a Blambot font called Silver Age. A few people have said they would have preferred a hand-lettered book, and I can't say I disagree -- I think I'm too addicted to revision, though. I can imagine paying somebody to letter the book a fourth time and then realizing I hated the dialogue and having to start over.
Nrama: How far are you along in drawing the series?
Simpson: I'm working on the second issue right now. It's been pretty slow going, and I'm being as open as I can with readers and retailers about the leisurely release schedule. It'll be a few months between issues. I'm putting in long hours and trying to speed up my pipeline, but no matter how much I improve, it'll take a certain amount of time to get the requisite number of lines packed onto each page. I know I'll catch hell for this on the internet, but hopefully a few people will be willing to hang in there with me between issues.
Nrama: A mutual friend named Joe Keatinge showed off a copy of Nonplayer to Moebius while he was at Angouleme. Although you weren’t there, what’s that like for you? And have you heard from Moebius about reading it?
Simpson: Joe called me minutes after he showed Moebius the book and told me somebody had stolen it. When I started to tell him it was okay, he interjected, "it was Moebius!" And then the shouting and jumping commenced. I think Moebius is well aware that his opinion -- even his facial expression -- can inflate or destroy an up-and-coming artist's self-esteem, so I imagine he's pretty well-practiced at responding to artwork with enthusiasm. I haven't heard anything directly from him since, but that's fine with me! If he wrote to me, he'd just be wasting time that should be spent drawing!
Nrama: I’m getting some warm vibes from this that remind me of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash novel. Have you read that, and if so, is it an influence?
Simpson: Yes, I love Snow Crash! A few people have pointed out that the tamale delivery thing is reminiscent of Hiro Protagonist's pizza delivery gig, and though I hadn't consciously noticed the connection, those people certainly have a point! I'm sure my ideas about cyberspace were very heavily influenced by his writing. The other author who's had a big effect on my thinking about the future is Vernor Vinge. He's written a lot of great stuff -- I think A Fire Upon the Deep is just about the neatest book ever.
Nrama: You’ve really come out of nowhere and become a fan favorite before the first issue’s even come out, Nate. What have you done before this?
Simpson: I've worked in video games since 1993. Most recently, I was the lead artist on Demigod, from Gas Powered Games. I've done stuff for a bunch of games you've never heard of, including Supreme Commander 2, Starfleet Command 2, Space Siege, and GoPets. Looking at that roster, it's probably pretty easy to see why I decided to give comics a try.
Nrama: All I can say is you’re a welcome addition to comics. Your artwork is amazing – you draw fantasy elements fantastically, and even the real world things seem surreal. What are your goals with each piece of artwork you do?
Simpson: That's a really interesting question. I haven't heard that one before. You know, the most exciting part of the whole process is just walking around in these imaginary worlds and watching what happens. I feel like I'm using an imperfect instrument to express what these places and people really look like. It's very frustrating. I think that's why I've gravitated toward that Moebius-type clear line style. It's the cleanest, most direct way to delineate the forms that I'm seeing in my head. So while some artists may have a formal interest in the page as a collection of abstract elements, for me it's more about the objects and people being depicted. I want to bring them to life somehow. Which is probably why my page composition can be really terrible sometimes. I think I get hyper-obsessed with the way a creature looks when I should really be concentrating how it's relating to the other stuff on the page