In the Cold War between the United States and the U.S.S.R., a proliferation of nuclear weapons kept each other at bay - but what if the Russians had their own psychics? How would the American government respond?
That question is what kicked off a unique creator-owned series at the upstart publisher Black Mask titled The Skeptics. Writer/designer Tini Howard, artist Devaki Neogi, and colorist Jen Hickman developed a pair of rockstar Uri Geller-types that dupe the U.S. government, break out their Russian counterparts, and go about saving the world how they see fit.
With two issues on stands and The Skeptics #3 due out January 4, Newsarama talked with Howard and Neogi about this no-nonsense, no-nostalgia take on the 1960s and the idea of old-school hacking the system of the time.
Newsarama: Devaki, Tini, thanks for doing this. First up, can you tell us what you’re working on today? What’s on your desk?
Devaki Neogi: I'm working currently on The Skeptics #3 art. It's a very fun story with all the teenagers getting together, the Russian twin included. We've lovely camaraderie between them. I'm loving the way I am getting to develop the art.
Tini Howard: Let's see, today wasn't a super intense work day for me. I answered a lot of emails and press, and did some of the less exciting freelance writing work I do on the side. I got to see covers and logos for things I'm working on that aren't announced yet, that was probably the highlight of my work day!
Nrama: Let’s get into it then… How would you describe The Skeptics’ Maxwell and Mary?
Howard: They're the smartest kids in the room, and they're always underestimated - but they have Dr. Santaclara in their lives to show them how you can use that to your advantage. Hilariously, Max is an actual criminal, but he's a white guy, so the scientists tend to trust him more than they do Mary - a model student who happens to be a black woman. It's the 1960s!
Mary's closest cartoon relative is probably Lisa Simpson, and Max's is probably John Constantine.
Nrama: What are these two after?
Howard: When it starts out, they're after a little respect. By the end of the first issue, they're after a truth that makes sense. And very quickly, they're after saving us all from World War III.
Nrama: Devaki, how’d you come to defining the looks of Mary and Max?
Neogi: I did have a talk over the looks with Tini. I wanted to know what she was she thinking. But I had the freedom to do what I wanted to. I looked up a lot on Pinterest about 1960s style, men and women. I wanted Mary to have a dress code sort-of language in her style. She's a bit timid and I wanted to use a more reserved/serious look. So black was it. Black turtleneck and shoes and socks. But a tartan-checked skirt with a yellow and off white pattern. But you know , she's very feminine too in a girlish way, so those classic pearls. The hairstyle is also from the many hairstyles that were popular at that time. Max is a Casanova sort-of guy, flirting around so I knew instinctively to give him some bold colors. Like a flirty orange pair of pants. And a green blazer. And striped tie. That's it! They were ready to roll.
Nrama: And what is Dr. Santaclara’s play in all of this?
Howard: She's seen her own share of being underestimated, so her goal is to try and prove these scientists wrong, rub their faces in something concrete. Only problem is, the guys don't take too kindly to her trick, and still refuse to believe her.
Whereas the kids just want to save the world, she maybe would like her name on the paper about it.
Nrama: This is a period piece set during cold war times, but you previously told me you’re consciously avoiding nostalgia. What is your take on the times, and how did you find that lens?
Howard: I think it's so easy to view American history as this idyllic thing that was all picket fences and secretly spying on your neighbor until boom, one day, Summer of Love, parties in the streets. And that's just not true.
Nostalgia wipes the grit off of the past, and I think good stories need grit. I call Skeptics a 'pre-punk period piece' - despite existing way before punk rock, the spirit of the book is about questioning authority from a place of truth: knowing you're right, not hoping.
Nrama: Devaki, how’d you on the art side develop the world and frame it properly without using tropes to define the times?
Neogi: I've not exactly stressed on architectural designs. The essence of 1960s comes primarily from the characters’ clothing and hairstyles. The colors needed to be unique to the time period. So I take a bow to Jen Hickman for taking on them with flying colors, literally so... [Laughs]
Nrama: The “do they or don’t they” question about Mary and Max’s powers reminds me of Uri Geller and MK Ultra. Where did your research take you when developing The Skeptics?
Howard: The Skeptics was born out of a lifelong fascination with dudes like Harry Houdini and James Randi, who were skeptics not because they were buttholes (can I call people buttholes on this site?) who wanted to be right all the time. They were skeptics because they so desperately wanted to believe in the truth, that they aggressively exposed people who were being false. And this story isn't about the government's secret plans - the government, in The Skeptics, are basically just a bunch of clueless humans. Which is what makes our heroes so powerful - they know more than the 'bad guys.'
One of my favorite books is High Crimes, by Christopher Sebela and Ibrahim Moustafa. Part of what that book does so brilliantly is that knowledge becomes power. The heroes can survive because they know more about the terrain, in a literal sense, there. I was really inspired by that.
Nrama:I know Devaki Neogi from her work on Curb Stomp – how did you two connect for The Skeptics?
Howard: I've been a fan of Devaki's for a while, followed her illustration work on social media and saw her covers for Kim & Kim. When Matt Pizzolo asked me who I wanted for the book, she was my first, last, and only choice. He reached out and asked her for me, and she said yes! That she would go to prom, er, make a book with me. ;)
Nrama: Devaki, what made The Skeptics a project you wanted to do after Curb Stomp?
Neogi: That's a good question. I'm glad you asked. I was doing the Kim & Kim covers at Black Mask when Matt contacted me and suggested me this story. It was past 3 A.M. when I got the mail and I remember just curling into bed but this got me so so excited that I immediately read the whole plot and told him that I'd love to take this up. I know this myself that I had an affinity towards dark stories, with an aggressive tone. And which is why I loved Curb Stomp. But the story of The Skeptics was such a departure from it, and I thought, “Why not, I can do this too!” as I felt I could explore the art as well and use a different style. I was trying to visualize this in my head and I felt it was different and new and unfamiliar to me and that got me excited! So I really wanted to do this.
Nrama: The cover to #1 really nails the tone of this book – how’d you go about defining the book in that image?
Neogi: Fun fact about the cover art: when I took over the project, as a warm-up I thought of doing a little something as a teaser, as also Black Mask was looking to release a teaser on it for their impending releases. When I showed to Tini and Matt, they felt it can go as an issue 1 cover instead of a teaser. It was also funny how Tini's idea and mine converged at one point, and I thought I don't want to reveal Dr. Santaclara's face on the cover. So her back is facing us like a mystery woman. We had the board pins with Max n Mary pinned giving that sense of Cold War mystery/conspiracy tone to linger on in the cover art.
Nrama: Three issues have been solicited so far for Skeptics – how long do you have the series mapped out for?
Howard: This first arc of The Skeptics is a four issue miniseries, so it's not a huge commitment if you want to pick up the first issue and go for it! And a lot of people have - we just got word that our first printing sold out and we are doing a second, so definitely pick it up now, if you can! (Or wait for the second one - I've seen that amazing cover, and I can't blame you.)
There was a time where I was very anti-the idea of doing a second arc, but then one day the idea popped into my head and now I'm all about it. If Devaki and the fans would go for it, of course.
Nrama: Big picture, what are your goals for The Skeptics?
Neogi: We want it to do really well, enough to roll into a second arc! We'll be thrilled if that happens. We want to tell more about these kids, their dreams aspirations and more adventures/misadventures and what not.
Howard: I think the thing I've heard most from people about the book is surprise - it really isn't like anything else on the shelves. The closest I can come to a description is “Archie does Watchmen,” but with a bit of the "pals in trouble" vibe of Sex Criminals. And that's what I'd like to do. Comics is a great place to play homage, but the only creator-owned ideas I get that really excite me are the ones that don't sound like what anyone else is doing at the time.
I guess my big picture goal would be to have a place to get weird, get wild, and tell satisfying stories. Groovy.