Would you trade your life sentence in prison for fifteen years enlisted in military service knowing you might not make it out alive? After the pair of teasers we showed off yesterday, today we can reveal the series. Writer Ed Brisson (Secret Avengers, Sons of Anarchy) and artist Damian Couciero (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, NOLA) give us that scenario in the sci-fi series, Cluster, coming from BOOM! Studios in February. Cluster tells the story of Samara, who is enlisted in the M. I. D. program for a mysterious crime.
Newsarama exclusively talked to Brisson and Couciero about the upcoming project, some of the childhood inspirations that went into the story, the collaboration process and the freedom given for the landscape and designs, as well as the mystery behind Samara’s crime.
Newsarama: Ed, there seems to be a metric ton of world building here for Cluster. How long has this project been rattling around in your brain?
Ed Brisson: The idea has been gnawing on the back of my brain for a few years now. I've always been a big fan of sci-fi films and wanted to develop something that would really appeal to my own sensibilities, but also have roots in 70’s and 80’s sci-fi films.
I pulled from some stuff I'd had been working on as a teenager, actually. Prisoners on another planet, fighting alien forces in order to work off their sentence. So, that concept is from way back in my notebooks. I've obviously updated and polished it quite a bit -- the story ideas I'd been working on back then were, frankly, terrible. I was a teenager! But, the core concept was something that I always liked. I reworked it and started to build a world around it and... well, here we are.
Nrama: Sci-fi in comics and pop culture seems to be making a comeback when you have movies like Interstellar and comics like Saga, The Fuse, Roche Limit, etc, how does something like Cluster stand out?
Brisson: Those are all great books. Copperhead and Prophet too! Honestly, I don't think that we're trying to go head-to-head with any of these books. Sci-fi is shaking right now and that's great. But, all of these books are very different -- Saga is a love and adventure story, Fuse is a cop procedural story, Prophet is Conan in space. Copperhead is a western set in space. Cluster is a prison story, that has a lot of nods to 80’s B-movies and sci-fi flicks. More than that, it's about someone who can't forgive themselves, about someone who's plunged themselves into a way of life as a means of self-punishment. It's about things not being what they seem on the surface. And it's about some cool-ass sci-fi action and alien creatures going buck wild.
Damian Couciero: Adding to what Ed has mentioned, sci-fi is such a wide genre that, I think, there are unlimited stories and different approaches that can coexist side by side. I love that sci-fi is having a sort of comeback and I just hope to live up to fans' expectations. Since I don't have much experience in the genre, other than Planet of the Apes (but that was a different kind of sci-fi than the one we are doing here) I think I can bring the grittiness and dark tone that I used in works like Sons of Anarchy to this book.
Nrama: Damian, when designing the characters here, especially our protagonist Samara, did Ed give you notes or were you left with a carte blanche on how things look?
Couciero: As for the characters' design, Ed gave me some descriptions for the main characters, some were more detailed than others. I've known Ed for a long time and I knew that he would give me room to put my own ideas on the designs. So, his descriptions worked as a starting point to develop the designs together. About Samara, he didn't give much descriptions since the character doesn't have remarkable features. Therefore I had plenty of freedom to create it.
Nrama: Did that go for the look of the landscape as well?
Couciero: Yes, Ed told me he pictured the planet landscape as desert, rough and harsh, and as he didn't go much into detail. Again, I had plenty of room to develop my own ideas. Since it's an alien planet I tried to design the desert landscape Ed had pointed out by adding features that would avoid it to look too Earthlike. All throughout this initial stage, I've felt that Ed gave me the real chance of working side by side with him on designing how this whole story would look like.
Nrama: Without giving too much away too soon, tell us a little bit about the world at large in Cluster.
Brisson: Well, it's set at an unspecified point in the far future where earth needs to expand. They're looking to populate new planets and haven't been able to find anything that shares Earth's atmosphere specifically. They've been able to find one planet, Midlothian, that is close -- a fixer-upper. So, they've started the process of terraforming this planets in order to make them inhabitable. Not surprisingly, they're running into resistance from indigenous populations. Earth's military forces are being depleted because of these efforts, so they've turned to conscripting prisoners to fight for them -- offering prisoners the opportunity to trade in their life sentence and instead serve fifteen years in the M.I.D. program (MILITARY INMATE DEPLOYMENT). Now, when your military and your prison system are both privatized, this can be a very dangerous thing with a lot of room for exploitation.
The first arc of Cluster follows Samara, the daughter of a Senator, who's sent into the M.I.D. program as the result of a crime that we tease out over the first four issues. She's our eyes into life on Midlothian and in the prison system. Of course, things don't fare well for her and that's the adventure that we follow.
Nrama: Can you tell us a little bit about Samara and what you think, as her creators, readers will be drawn to her by?
Brisson: She's someone who has been mostly guarded from the evils and injustices of life, thanks to her father's elevated position as a politician. She's never had to really assess risk or deal with consequences -- so when she is responsible for a terrible... incident... she goes into a deep depression and almost demands to pay for what she's done. As I'm typing, I realize that sounds masochistic, but it's not that. She just realizes that she's been protected from suffering that others have had to endure and she knows it. Because of this incident in her life, she chooses to step out from that bubble. To pay for her crimes the same way that anyone else in society would have to. She's seeking some sort of understanding through it.
Nrama: What were inspirations going into some of the designs for the characters and environment? Ed you mentioned you pulled from stuff from your childhood, but anything really specific that you latched on to more than others, or was this more of you just branching out and getting crazy with things?
Brisson: To be honest, I can't think of anything specific that I might have latched onto. It's more that I really wanted to try to capture the feel of sci-fi films that I used to love as a kid. Some of them might have been terrible films, but I used to watch the hell out of them. Cluster does have it's roots in films like “Deadlock”, “Galaxy of Terrors”, “Star Wars”, “Turkey Shoot”, “Enemy Mine”, “Star Crystal” and about three million other direct-to-video sci-fi films that were released in the 80s. As a kid, I spent all my money either at the comic shop or video store. I loved these films. But, as I was saying, it's more the feel of these films, than it is anything specific. A lot of these films are pretty hokey, in retrospect.
Nrama: It seems there has been a resurgence of creator-owned properties in the last few years or so. I'm curious to know what creator-owned books you guys are enjoying these days? Do you feel intimidated by anyone in particular?
Brisson: My current reading list is: Lazarus, Deadly Class, Saga, Five Ghosts, Copperhead, Stray Bullets, The Fade Out, Nailbiter, Pop, Southern Bastards, Hit, The Empty Man, Dead Letters, High Crimes, and probably about 42 other titles that I'm blanking on at the moment.
I don't think I feel intimidated by anyone. It sounds corny, but there are a lot of other creators that I'm inspired by, for sure. There are a few that I might be intimidated by if I were in the same room with them, but that's mostly because I can be pretty quiet around people whose work I really like -- until I get to know them.
Couciero: As an artist I usually focus on the art, rather than on a particular story. In that respect, some of the books that I'm enjoying these days are Southern Bastards, Saga, Fatale, Hit, Starlight. I consider their art to be great so of course I may feel a bit intimidated.
Nrama: You sent Newsarama a teaser image displaying what appears to be a recruitment poster, did you collaborate on the marketing design or was that something on BOOM!'s end that they assisted with?
Brisson: That was all BOOM! I think they're pretty great though.
Couciero: The teaser image and the marketing design was actually a BOOM! initiative based on one of my soldiers designs. We thought it was a great idea when they showed it to us.
Nrama: So let me ask you this, do you think you would sign up to avoid prison or would you just take your life sentence instead?
Brisson: Absolutely not. Not if I knew the danger involved. While I might write some pretty violent stuff, I'm a straight up pacifist.
Couciero: I think I'd rather sign up and take the risks that come with it, than living the rest of my life locked up in a cell. Chances are I get to see things I never imagined and get a whole new experience, and who knows, I may be lucky enough to come back.