With supersoldiers, Nazi plots, and a detective who's more than meets the eye, Newsarama regular Steve Ekstrom, along with Scandinavian artist Mikael Bergkvist and colorist Jesse Turnbull, have taken their series The Ares Imperative to Zuda Comics for this month's competition. We caught up with Steve and Mikael not only to discuss the ins and outs of their new series, but to also get a firsthand look at what it's like to build up a product for the Zuda competition.
Newsarama: So the first thing I should ask: in your own words, what is The Ares Imperative all about?
Steve Ekstrom: The Ares Imperative is a modern action-adventure comic that is reminiscent of the old school EC science fiction and pulp comics of the mid-20th Century. It’s got a little bit of something for everyone—action, suspense, science fiction, and drama. I may even try to eek in a little romance if Mikael will let me. For the past several years, I had been sort of champing at the bit to tell a wide screen style action-adventure story that had some substance to it; when Mikael asked me to take a shot at scripting his story—I knew that this was the story I wanted to tell.
The concept for the lead character, Adam Geist, is purely science fiction in nature but it’s grounded within the methods of modern science to give it a little traction—I hate the idea of patronizing a reader with a half-baked concept. Through experimental bio-engineering, Geist has had his DNA augmented with alien mitochondria—and he’s become the world’s first Human Weapon of Mass Destruction. The world of The Ares Imperative is a lot like ours: corporations have their fingers in a lot of places they shouldn’t; terrorist organizations are becoming tech savvy; and now, as we further entrench ourselves in modern technology, quasi-religious science cults are beginning to emerge. Now that the U.S. has this first “Super-Man”, other world powers, corporations, organizations, and/or people with interest in controlling how the world turns (so to speak) are all vying to create their own HWMD.
If we make it past the Zuda competition this month—readers will be introduced to Adam Geist’s work in the field…he’s going to be tracking down a mysterious substance of unknown origin in the jungles of Colombia. Vote for us and you’ll get to see more—including explosions, a hail of bullets, and crocodiles!
Mikael Bergkvist: War, as an entity, is more about controlling intelligence and information than it has been at any time before in history of modern man, and that battle for dominance spills over into casual, civilian society and cause problems for democracy almost by default.
These last 8 years proved that quite clearly, in regard to civil rights, the Patriot Act, etc. Getting access to and control of technology and information becomes more important—even when it's DNA we are talking about. We are getting DNA patents today, and that means that there's research going on somewhere, by someone, and considering the above, at least some of what's going on is touching upon what we are doing in this story.
NRAMA: When you were creating Adam Geist, what went into it?
SE: Honestly, Adam was Mikael’s concept—that I fleshed out and dressed up with conceptual proper nouns. His name was originally Marc Saunders but I thought, “What’s in a name?” Adam Geist literally translates as “Spirit of the Red Earth”—it’s an “Easter Egg”—one of a multitude, actually. Savvy readers will have a field day with the first eight pages of The Ares Imperative if they slow down really analyze what’s going on.
MB: The hero is trying to emulate or replace the human soul with sheer intelligence, because as a warrior, he can control that. You can't afford losing control in the heat of battle. It's the men who keep their heads on straight that survive. So, he's extremely controlled and basically has no real emotions, and is 100% focused on destroying his opponent. But trying to calculate what's right and/or wrong is a tricky business. Now he's been boosted by this incredibly aggressive alien DNA, so his abilities have skyrocketed, but the dilemma is still the same. Is there a formula for right or wrong?
NRAMA: Considering this story has to deal with super-soldiers and bio-warfare, what about Geist? I see he's called a "special agent"—does that entail any special abilities?
SE: Based on Mikael’s basic concept—I didn’t want to break anything, so to speak—because the idea is solid; but, I think superhuman traits in a story like this—if overwrought—would end up totally sullying the fact that this is a character driven adventure serial set in a very realistic world. So I wanted to make the abilities that Geist possesses seem more natural. His brain operates with a higher level of electrical impulses and he has a data interface—like bio-firmware that acts as a bridge between the higher function of his own biological computer and the alien encoded genetics that are beginning to assert control. This bio-firmware also provides him with a database type Wi-Fi link with C.I.A. headquarters—and it also feeds data to a private computer that I want to elude to for the time being…(evil laughter)
He also possesses enhanced senses, his motor skills are enhanced, he’s more durable—but that’s because his cells now have alien mitochondria powering them. He’s bulletproof—but that’s because his skin actually rapidly changes in cellular density—almost like a plant cell does with turgor pressure. He still feels the bullet’s impact but his skin stops it.
I want to leave it open-ended—who knows what would happen if we crossbred a human and an alien body, right?
NRAMA: What about influences? Any story or art influences go into this project?
MB: When I came up with the concept for The Ares Imperative, I was thinking about the consequences of a super-powered being operating in the real world. I'm pretty sure he'd be enlisted or picked up by the government pretty quickly and I doubt very much they would give him a spandex suit to wear. The “Powers That Be” in our world are all manipulative “users” who exploit what people can do for them, they aren't in the business of creating superstars.
So, much of my inspiration comes from the news, plain and simple.
SE: My influences range all over the place: from Johnny Quest, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Commander Cody and the Rocket Men from the Moon, James Bond to Warren Ellis, Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Ed Brubaker, Chris Claremont, Brian Bendis and Chuck Palahniuk—I tend to just act like a black hole that devours concepts, ideas and light—lord knows what is coming out the other side, right? (laughs)
Jesse Turnbull: I wanted something a little more saturated and bright with this book. I tried to incorporate a little more light than I probably do typically. I like heavy textures and dark shadows, so this was a little more of a "comic book" looking comic for me. As far as coloring influences go, I studied under José Villarrubia in school and I learned a ton from working with him. I watch movies constantly and try to pay attention to pallets from certain films to see if I can include the look in books I am working on. I pull from lots of different sources and try to mix everything together with varying degrees of success.
NRAMA: Something I should ask about is how you guys got to this point. First and foremost, how did the three of you guys get together?
SE: Well, I know we met—what? About 7-8 months ago online…was it a leather bondage website? Sorry, I’ll shut up…
MB: I thought it was at a Britney Spears fan site.
JT: I went to school with a really talented comic artist named Doug Draper. Doug was working on a project with Steve, I'm buddies with Doug and he knew I had coloring experience, and I got into the mix. Steve liked what he saw from our work together there and that carried over to this project.
SE: Yeah, Mikael and I started originally working on a creator-owned project of mine—and we wanted Jesse to color it—because he’s brilliant. I think Mikael and I have decided that we really want Jesse coloring our projects fulltime. I just don’t know if we’ve told that until now…
NRAMA: How long did this comic take you guys to put together? Could you tell us about some bumps in the road, or some really awesome moments that made the whole shebang worth it?
MB: It didn't technically 'come together'—it was born, you know…(laughs)
SE: Very true. Ironically, this project was planned out as a three issue mini-series that Mikael had handled on his lonesome. We actually started out on my creator-owned project together. He sort of handed me these pages and said, “I was told this needs a writer’s touch.”
Now, I’ll tell you—I was totally flattered; because, that’s like saying, “Here hold my baby…even though I don’t really know where your hands have been…” (laugh)
To me, besides seeing the finished pages which are just such an amazing synthesis of both Mikael’s and Jesse’s efforts, the thing that really gets me going about working with Mikael and Jesse is that we’re all really like minded when it comes to vision for a project—and we’re all point-blank honest about the work going into the project. I always felt like I was a little bit heavy-handed while I was checking up on them—but then they’d say, “I appreciate you staying on top of me and keeping the pace up.” I couldn’t ask for two better guys to work with, really. It really feels like no time at all has passed—we just get stuff done.
JT: Steve is certainly our ringleader, keeping everyone in the know without being a hassle. He's a very motherly young man if that makes any sense—
SE: I just pictured myself dressed up like Mrs. Doubtfire… (laughs)
JT: Well, he motivates when you need it, and lays off when the outside world doesn't seem to want you to get your pages finished on a particular day. Mike seems like he is working non-stop as well. If it’s been a while since I've received pages and remind him, I am usually bombarded with a torrent of new work that seems to have been piling up on his desk.
SE: Something I really respect about both these guys is that they care about the projects they’re working on wholeheartedly. I’ve had some fairly shallow experiences in the jungle of inexperience that surrounds the comic book industry with creative types who are trying to get in with as little effort as possible with this weird since of entitlement on their shoulder or the experienced guys who are looking for small projects and quick bucks who can’t commit to anything long term and they’ll leave you in a jam for a bigger gig. These two guys are both consummate professionals—they’ve taught me a lot about the synergy a real creative team can have—and they’ve allowed me to direct our efforts as a leader and I’ve got to say I love the dynamic we have. It’s very pure.
NRAMA: And what made you guys decide to take a stab at Zuda? Is there anything about the widescreen webcomic format that speaks to you?
SE: Honestly? Mikael’s work has a very contemporary European “graphic album” feel; his panel work and layouts are perfect for the 4:3 ratio of the web comic format. I could just see the shapes—I felt like I was seeing ‘The Matrix’ with my own eyes for the first time. So I said, “Hey guys…check this out,” and I chopped up a couple of his full size pages in Photoshop and I dropped them into 4:3 slides. It was a serendipitous event for us—I think we all really feel like we were meant to do this project. You should see the next 52 panels—they’re amazingly dynamic even in the rough mocked up way we’re working with them at the moment…you know, in the event that we win the contest.
I really like that the pace is fast—even with mountains of dialog—which our opening sequence has over at ZUDA. It’s very quick on your eyes—but at the same time you find yourself studying the panels more…I love it. It’s like being able to drive down a country road full of flowers at a really fast speed but being able to stick your head out of the window and smell them individually. Maybe I’m weird.
MB: I thought it was a good idea because Zuda has a wide range of stories that aren't superhero-oriented. That meant that we could tell a tale about exactly that, a superhero, without any of the trappings—the suit, the mantle, all that, and say something fresh and 100% realistic about the subject without any of the spandex baggage.
JT: I was just along for the ride on this one. The work was chopped and formatted once I received it and I just went from there. For the most part, I didn't approach this any differently that I would have for a printed comic.
NRAMA: Lastly, is there anything about The Ares Imperative that people should know?
MB: This story is like a really, really big summer blockbuster action movie, and the finale is where we spent almost all of the 'movies' budget, so we have to get there first, but I can assure you that the endgame is over-the-top; it's essentially one big, long out-of-control insane action scene, that goes on and on, constantly increasing the stakes, for a whole third of the entire run of the comic, which is pretty long by the way. It's a real nail biter. What's at stake, in the end, is no less than the survival of all life on earth.
We have chosen—wisely or not—an old school approach to telling the story, and we are starting really quiet and really laid back, and then it builds. We're hoping the audience gets that, that not all stories benefit from jumping right into it, some stories have to start at the beginning. Think about Lord of the Rings—the comparison isn't as far off as you might think—it starts really slow, but then it builds from start to finish, ending in a grand finale, which redefines the heroes world and how they view it, an ending which has become a classic all in itself.
I miss that in today’s comics, they almost seem to have lost that ability to build-up and pay-off, because they focus so much on instant gratification. Some things are worth waiting for though, and Steve has this ability to really drive that point all the way home, so if you enter this journey and stay with it, you won’t forget it anytime soon once done—I can promise you that.
SE: Readers, ask yourselves these two questions: Would you like to read more pages of The Ares Imperative? And does this story have the kind of gravitas and depth that you desire in your entertainment? If your answers are ‘yes’ to both then maybe you should vote for us—or even re-evaluate the vote you’ve already made and change it. The cool thing about all of this is that you have the power of choice. All I can hope for is that you use it wisely.
I’ll finish with this—Mikael has put in an amazing amount of work—penciling and inking everything. And we’ve already mocked out the entire first season (or what I’d rather call “Chapter 1 of 3”) and we’re ready to tell you a story that is going to melt your face off and take you to realms of modern science and cinematic-style action that you haven’t seen in a web comic before now.