There's a difference between being smart and being wise, and the new Vault Comics miniseries Maxwell's Demons explores that against the backdrop of epic science fiction with big picture storytelling.
Maxwell's Demons begins with a 10-year-old super genius named Maxwell Maas who uses his intellect to create an escape from his abusive father - think closet doors turned portals, kids toys made sentient, and more.
With the first issue schedule to be released November 8, Newsarama talked with co-creator/writer Deniz Camp about the series, his unique path from the medical profession to Mark Millar to comic, and where he hopes to end up in comics.
Newsarama: Deniz, Maxwell’s Demons comes out soon – what’s your convention pitch for it?
Deniz Camp: Maxwell’s Demons is science fiction on a massive scale. It follows the story of Maxwell Maas, the greatest mind of his generation, and a boy with a great - but uncertain - destiny. We’ll encounter aliens with inscrutable agendas, living worlds held together by love, universes where time runs backwards. Through it all, Max will have to use his amazing intelligence to survive a multiverse filled with science fiction horrors and become the man he’s destined to be.
At its core, it is the story of transformational greatness, as often terrible as altruistic.
It’s drawn and colored by the amazing Vittorio Astone, who I think you’ll agree does impossibly beautiful things with both line and color to tell the story. It’s lettered by letter-god and all-around prince, Aditya Bidikar, whose work already adorns and elevates many of your favorite comics.
It’ll be like nothing else you’ve read.
Nrama: So just who is Maxwell Maas?
Camp: Max is a genius on a heretofore unparalleled scale. He’s a boy born before his time, one of those rare individuals who will define it. Living with his abusive, alcoholic father, Max turns his closet door into a portal to other universes, turns his stuffed animals into thinking and feeling beings, invents all manner of strange and outlandish weaponry. His own limit is his own imagination, and his own self-doubt.
That’s who he is when we start the series. But perhaps the central question OF the series is, who will he become?
Nrama: So, who (or what) are his “Demons” referred to in the title?
Camp: His demons are both external and internal. As we open, he’s brilliant, but he’s still a boy, with all the attendant naivete and confusion that comes with being a boy. The terrible relationship he has with his father has left him adrift in his own imagination and impetus, and he’s struggling to find… a place for himself, I suppose, as so many of us are.
He’ll encounter more literal, external demons as the series progresses, but we’ll be playing with that dichotomy.
I should mention, the title is actually based on a thought experiment created by the physicist James Clerk Maxwell regarding entropy and thermodynamics and the potential violation thereof. Having a bit of background on it might enhance the enjoyment of Maxwell’s Demons thematically, but it isn’t at all essential.
Nrama: You've told me although Maxwell's Demons is a five-issue miniseries, every issue is standalone and doesn't necessarily follow chronologically with the issues before it. Talk to us about that approach.
Camp: So my approach was informed by a couple of different things. I wanted each of the issues to be standalone, because I wanted to give readers a full story. Too often I close an issue and I feel a vague sense of dissatisfaction, because I got 1/6th of a story instead of a story. There are a lot of ways to write good comics and give ‘content’ per issue, but I thought that if we’re putting a book out in monthly installments I should write to that format. It’s my way of trying to make “the monthly” a meaningful concept again, and ensuring that I deliver as much as possible to the readers who take a chance on us.
The non-chronological structure of the issues - oscillating from Max’s boyhood to adulthood and beyond, always with Max as the center character - allows me to surprise a readership. We, as a society, consume so much story that we’ve become somewhat inured to story structure. After a traditional issue #1, there are only so many ways a story can go - there’s a certain amount of predictability in it. And you can do that well, but fundamentally I wanted to be able to surprise - even shock - readers. I don’t think that happens very often in comics anymore, or in fiction, and that’s a shame. I wanted to bring back that sense of disorientation and excitement you had when you were first reading, where it seemed like anything could happen next.
From this arose a number of other opportunities, too. The space between issues becomes a mystery, a space in which the readers can do their own creative work and put some of themselves into the story.
As you continue to read the series, you’ll see a much bigger narrative emerging from the smaller, seemingly disconnected points, until you see it’s all one big connected web. But along the way you’ll constantly be re-evaluating the characters, the world, and the book itself.
Nrama: So what should people expect with the first issue?
Camp: The first issue opens with Maxwell Maas as an eight-year-old boy, playing war with his sentient stuffed animal collection in other worlds in an effort to escape his dismal home life. One day, through the portal in his closet door, an alien adventurer named Corvus appears, and offers to take him under his wing and show him the greater multiverse and all the wonders therein. Max accepts, and the real adventure begins.
Nrama: Then what about the second?
Camp: The second issue takes place hundreds of thousands of years after the first. I don’t want to spoil too much, but there is a coterie of strange aliens, a sentient black hole that’s also a sword, and a road that is long, and dangerous, and filled with death. We might also see the face of God.
Nrama: You come to comics with a unique background - you studied cellular and molecular biology in university, and worked as a medical assistant in South America. How'd you end up in comic books?
Camp: Traumatically and confusedly. [Laughs]
Nah, I was nearing the end of my medical studies at a certain institution and I just felt deeply unsatisfied with both the inequality and inefficiencies built into the American health system - by no means natural, wholly driven by pursuit of profit - and my own quality of life. It’s a grueling, demoralizing career, and to not be miserable (not to mention good at it) you have to be in love with the process, not just the outcome.
The same is true of writing, I think, and it’s ultimately what separates successful writers from unsuccessful ones.
So, I lived abroad in my father’s country of Turkey for a while, still doing medical work in the American hospital there and helping arrange protests against the government, and made the firm decision that I should pursue my passion, which has always been comics. I have no background in writing, but I have an extensive one in reading, and reading comics specifically. So, I wrote a few scripts, and convinced a few great artists to work with me. My big break was winning the 2015 Millarworld Talent Hunt, for my Starlight entry. That opened up a lot of doors, and - well, external validation is neither necessary nor sufficient, but it certainly helps.
Nrama:How do those careers inform your writing?
Camp: Quite a bit, actually. Much of my work has been in basic science research, and what I learned doing both is that writing and science are both inherently interrogative. They both require you to start from certain premises, observe certain data, and draw conclusions and predictions to test those conclusions.
There is no objective reality - no right or wrong interpretation - in art. That’s its appeal, in that freedom. Science is much more constrained, but you’re still using the same cognitive tools. And there is absolutely a certain aesthetic consideration in math and science, just as there is in art. Talk to any mathematician and they’ll tell you about the beauty of mathematics, its elegance, and how much of their methodology is felt rather than proscribed.
Nrama: How and where did you learn to formally write (and write comic books)?
Camp: From reading them! There are so many resources online to learn about the structure of a script, and anyway it’s quite informal in comics (as opposed to, say, film, which is shockingly rigid in its formatting). Once I saw a couple, I started writing one that felt most natural and clear - and I am still learning how to adapt that formatting as I get feedback from letterers. Of course, every script is different, and tailored to the artist; some artists love the Alan Moore style micro-management, for others I’ll just write the dialogue and a general sense of the action and they’ll do their thing.
But in terms of story structure and all that, I just think a lot of that is built into us, which is precisely why it’s such an effective form of communication and indoctrination. I suppose there’s also a bootstrapping at work - stories designed to effect, and then the more stories we consume the more primed we are to be affected by them.
My approach, and my advice to budding writers: read comics with an analytical eye. Try to figure out how and why something was done, and if it was effective/how it could be more effective. Resources like Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou’s Strip Panel Naked and PxP kind of illustrate the work I do in my head when I read a comic or story (Full disclosure, I write for PxP, semi-self plug).
Nrama: As you mentioned, you broke in by winning a talent contest Mark Millar put on in 2015. How was that as an entry point into comic books?
Camp: It was great. I’d been a poster on Mark’s message boards for ages before - since I was in high school - so I was kind of a known quantity to the community, and I’ve always valued it. After winning I felt like Mark was really there for me, giving advice, feedback, introducing me to people. He’s been an immense advocate and guiding light.
It also introduced me to a great bunch of budding creators, and gave me my first experience with editorial in the form of super-star Rachael Fulton. Between her and Adrian Wassel at Vault, I’ve been spoiled beyond belief.
Nrama: Big picture, what are your goals in comic books - and specifically with Maxwell's Demons?
Camp: I plan to be in this industry for a long time, telling stories with my own characters and the characters of others. I hope to accomplish a lot over the course of a career, but in short:
To tell human stories on a spectrum of scales and genres. To experiment with the formal elements of comics, and utilize the medium to its full potential. To collaborate with brilliant artists and, from that collaboration, make something that is bigger than both of us. To surprise and amaze new readers and jaded fans alike. To do all that fairly and equitably, putting people before profit.
In short, to paraphrase Jack Kirby, I’m looking for the awesome.