M. Zachary Sherman: Creating Shrapnel: Aristeia Rising

Shrapnel #1
Shrapnel #1
issue #1

Venus, 2250. After five years of war, the last free colony in the Solar System is about to fall. Unknown to the attacking Marines—or even the colonists themselves—the most infamous heroine of the war has gone into self-exile on their planet. Now she must organize a revolt against the very Marines she once fought alongside...and lead the colonists to freedom.

For Shrapnel: Aristeia Rising, the first in an epic trilogy of miniseries that represents Radical Publishing's most ambitious project to date, Newsarama has previously talked to creators Mark Long and Nick Sagan. This time, we speak with series writer M. Zachary Sherman about the process of developing both the story and the main character, Samantha Vijaya.

Sherman is a marine and writer who has scripted for Marvel, Dark Horse and Image on such titles as Star Wars and SOCOM: SEAL Team Seven. In addition, Sherman has worked as a digital effects artist for numerous major Hollywood releases, including Pirates of the Caribbean, The Chronicles of Narnia and the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

Issue #1 hits stores this week.

Newsarama: Zachary, what can you tell us about the birth of the concept?

M. Zachary Sherman: Mark had a visual sense of where he wanted the book to go artistically, and Nick wanted it to be like nothing either of us had ever done before; but neither had an A-to-Z of where it was going. They had a rough outline about the character and what the universe was like, but fortunately for me, I was able to jump right into the fold and throw ideas out left and right, because I knew these fellas. I knew Nick back from the college days when he was working on his student film at UCLA, and Mark because Zombie Studios had optioned the game rights to my first graphic novel, SOCOM: SEAL Team Seven.

To nail down the story we truly developed a virtual studio, since I’m in the Bay Area, Mark’s in Seattle and Nick’s in New York. We did a series of conference calls where Mark would set agenda items of what to focus on and Nick and I would throw out ideas left and right, with Mark contributing his input and approvals. It was a fantastically creative environment, since you’ve got a comics guy, a games guy and a film guy, all trying to come up with ideas you’d never seen before. I think we all drew from each other's strengths to do just that.

Shrapnel #1, spread
Shrapnel #1, spread
page 1

NRAMA: Woven into the narrative of Shrapnel: Aristeia Rising seems to be strong philosophical ideas about war, duty and destiny. What is the central message of the story?

MZS: It actually all depends on where you are at the time in your life when you read it. I know that sounds a little weird, but let me explain. For me, the message is about how the universe works in a very karmic flow, like a river with several different streams, and rivers you can take to get to your final destination. Some people call that destiny; I think it’s just the path you have set in front of you, and like a river, there are many different avenues you can take to get there. But, in my case, the universe keeps pushing me toward what it feels I need to be doing with my life, correcting my steps when I get off track.

The same thing happens to Sam. She wants to be left alone, to be her own woman, left to her own devices and live free, so she goes U.A. (unauthorized absence) and tries to hide off in the middle of nowhere. But she’s secretly stifled. She hates it and wants nothing more than to be a normal woman again. That’s when the Alliance shows up, and shows her that this path of hiding she’s taking isn’t the right one, and that sometimes you have to face the rapids straight on to get to the calmer waters in life.

Now, some people will tell you that’s all malarkey. Science guys don’t believe in that stuff, and it comes from a more spiritual side. Others will tell you destiny is set, and it’s just a matter of when things transpire; or that there's no destiny, just a conglomeration of “decisive choices” we make in life, and that we’re just made up of those outcomes. Me, I don’t agree with that viewpoint, and neither does Sam.

Shrapnel #1, page 4
Shrapnel #1, page 4
page 4

NRAMA: Can you tell me about the creative challenges of taking the subject matter of interplanetary war and funneling it down into the story of one character?

MZS: War is definitely a team sport, but it all comes down to individual achievements by the members of that team. You can’t punch through as a running back from 2nd-and-goal if you don’t have that spectacular block from the cornerback or that perfect handoff from the quarterback. Each person contributes their specific talents where they need to, and if the team doesn’t execute their jobs without a hitch, then the entire plan crumbles. That is combat personified.

Every war has its heroes, but everyone in war is a hero. You can take any of the soldiers from World War II and spin an interesting or compelling yarn about them. Everybody from the squad leader on down to the supply sergeant has an extraordinary story, because war is an extraordinary event. One, hopefully, most of us will never be a part of. And most Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen, after being in combat, have a few to tell. This book could have easily been told through the eyes of an Alliance Marine, from the beginning of his training up to the point where he’s just about to jump into battle with the Venus militia. We could have told the story of someone’s ultimate sacrifice for his or her ideals, and it would have been equally as powerful. Or, it could have been told from the vantage point of one of the militia soldiers on the ground, about to defend the colony.

But what makes Sam the more interesting figure to focus on in this universal conflict are her motives. Her actions are worthy of the story because they’re driven by self-sacrifice, and one she doesn’t make in vain. Sam knows full well that she’s not going to come home alive if she steps up and agrees to lead this rebel band of warriors, but she sees the ineptitude around her, and knows that if someone doesn’t step up and teach these amateurs how to fight, everything she holds dear—freedom, security, individuality, democracy—will be destroyed forever. In the face of bad or no leadership, true leaders step forward, not because they want to, but because they have to, so men and women can survive.

Sam’s actions, her extraordinary leadership, her icy-cold, steadfast battlefield demeanor...these are all items that make her a hardcore character. But her internal, emotional struggle—not knowing how to shake the ghosts of her past—makes her an interesting character; one worth reading. She’s seen and been through so much, and she has a hell of a story to tell.

Shrapnel #1, page 20
Shrapnel #1, page 20
page 20

NRAMA: Fiction rarely is born in a vacuum. How does the current geopolitical climate affect your work on Shrapnel: Aristeia Rising?

MZS: Even in our earliest conversations, we didn’t want the story to mimic the current political actions of the current governing bodies, but there were some areas we took from. The Alliance sends an envoy to Venus and demands their surrender. Ha! Just like that, Col. Rossi says, “We are prepared to take sovereign control over your planet, accept your loyalties, and welcome you to our brotherhood openly.” Now, I have no idea what Bush told the ministers of Iraq after we toppled Saddam, but I’m sure it wasn’t as articulate. This book is not a political statement, but like you said, all good sci-fi pulls upon current events and makes them relevant to the reader under the guise of science fiction. It just adds another level of depth to the story, and gives the reader something else to think about.

NRAMA: There’s a great deal of backstory, only hinted at during this series. How much of that was developed before you began Shrapnel: Aristeia Rising, and can you tell us more about that process?

MZS: It is always easier to know where you’re going with a story when you know where the characters have been. Of all the characters, Sam was fleshed out the most. I actually wrote an entire history of her life, family and entire military career up to the point where she ran off into hiding. That was imperative. You need to know these people if you’re going to write about them. It’s not like writing Batman, who’s got this 50-year-plus rich history you can pull from; this is a new, unnamed persona that needs to be fleshed out, so you can get into the nooks and crannies of her psyche. I needed to know about her before I could dissect her. That was the first thing I did.

The universe Mark wanted to create was based on several different distinct moments in human history. The Peloponnesian War, the rule of the Roman Empire, battles of antiquity; they were all inspirations to us as we created the rich and diverse underbelly of a setting. I did a lot of research and tried to think about the best parts of these arenas that would fit into the story, then came up with a timeline of how we came from today into their time period. And Nick was instrumental in that. He pushed me with questions like, “So, is this an extension of today, or is it an alternate Earth, because we don’t have gravity technology…” We really did ask and answer all of the tough questions needed to write a story of this magnitude, and didn’t let the details slide.

NRAMA: In some of the art I’ve seen of the first issue, there seems to be a strong thematic connection to the works of Ridley Scott and James Cameron. Were those filmmakers influences on Shrapnel: Aristeia Rising, and if so, then in what way?

MZS: To say “no” would be a lie, but we didn’t have meetings where we watched the films and went, “See that? Draw that!” Anyone who knows me knows James Cameron is my hero. He’s a master of the craft, and no one writes real people in extraordinary places and situations better than he does. Aliens, Terminator 1 and 2, The Abyss—fantastic pieces of science fiction that I feel everyone has been either trying to match or top since those projects were created. I try to learn from the masters, not to emulate or copy, but to dissect what they do, how they work, and to pull out of me personally what they bring to the table so correctly.

As for the art style, the minute that we decided there were going to be diverse cultures in a dystopian future, we all kind of looked at one another and said, “We’re gonna get compared to Blade Runner no matter what we do.” With that type of environment, I don’t think you can ever get away from it. Heck, Chinatown in sci-fi looks like Blade Runner, but we did want it to look fresh and new in design, and I think we achieved that.

But again, only in some areas do we see the seedier parts of town. The sectors where the miners hang out and drink are a bit more run-down and dank, but the other parts of Venus are clean and new, like the Federal Lawn and Octagon building. Personally, I felt those areas were more fun to design. We wanted them to look like Earth, but right next to them are the edges of the domes—geodesic tubular structures covered with pieces of see-through glass, keeping out the harsh Venusian alien landscape. That’s fun! Because here’s a White House-like structure, with manicured lawns and roses, but behind it is the backdrop of some alien planet, with its poisonous atmosphere only kept out by sheets of glass. Awesome!

Again, it’s trying to take the best from what we know, alter it in such a way that it’s new again, and make it work for what we’re trying to create.

NRAMA: I would hope that mankind’s technological advances would also advance our need for peace and prosperity, but in Shrapnel: Aristeia Rising we have a technologically advanced world still teeming with war and prejudice. Do you think that mankind will ever evolve beyond the need for war?

Shrapnel #1, page 22
Shrapnel #1, page 22
page 22

MZS: Personally, I think it’s only going to happen when aliens invade the planet. The only thing that seems to bring humanity together is a common enemy to fight. It’s sad, but look at 9/11. In the weeks that followed, there were no Democrats, no Republicans, no ethnicities, only Americans under a united flag, doing what we could to bring safety and security to the country. Now, we’ve forgotten that brotherhood. Maybe where races no longer exist and the people of this planet are all one color…hmm, wait! Sounds like a great idea for a sci-fi book! That’s mine! No one gets to steal that!

NRAMA: The most important question of all...Star Wars or Star Trek?

MZS: Having had worked for George Lucas’s ILM for many years, the answer is simple—Trek. They haven’t sold out...well, not yet anyway, and hopefully now with J.J. Abrams at the helm, they never will.

Star Wars started with a message of hope, that faith and trust in friends can overcome all odds; but it has become nothing more than a corporate a cash-cow of ridiculous proportions that sells everything from Jar Jar tongue lollipops to 24 different versions of a Darth Maul action figure. The message was lost, and the new trilogy proves that. It’s sad, though some of the comics are wonderful. Obviously, it’s a business, and everyone needs to make a profit, but Trek has always been the thinking man’s sci-fi, the true roots of the genre, with the characters being at the helm of each story. A triumvirate of characters—Kirk the leader, Spock the logic and McCoy the emotions—they make up the single, most perfect character. All internal struggles and conflicts that people have within themselves are played out in three characters, so we can see that turmoil externally and what it takes to overcome those situations from all perspectives.

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