Warren Ellis and Jason Howard are taking a break from their thought-provoking creator-owned series Trees for a quick, action-oriented sci-fi story set in a world gone wrong.
Scheduled to launch September 12, the seven-issue Cemetery Beach is a return for both Ellis and Howard to action-centered storytelling while also bringing their well-hewn styles down upon it. So what's the story?
Over a 100 years ago a ship set out to colonize a remote world - and they were promptly forgotten about. Now, Earth has rediscovered these long-lost cousins and sends a professional pathfinder named Mike Blackburn to restablish contact.
So what could happen to a remote colony cut off from humanity and marooned in a strange, new place? Remember, this is writer Warren Ellis.
Ellis and Howard spoke to Newsarama about this new series and how it's tapping into deep-set ideas and ideals the two have in terms of colonization, being in over your head, and paying respect to the people who inspired you.
Newsarama: Cemetery Beach is about a professional pathfinder attempting to escape from an off-world colony a century old and populated with what Image describes as 'lunatics.' Is this an analogy for the world today, assuming you're reading the same news I am? What is this inspired by?
Warren Ellis: Why on Earth would you think the story of a colony gone mad would have current-day political connotations? I'm sure I don't know.
No, history is full of colonies that went mad or bad or weird. There' s an insane story you should look up -- in the 1600s, an impromptu colony was created on an archipelago island off the coast of Australia, run by a mutineer and psychopath by the name of Jeronimus Cornelisz.
Nrama: The idea of a professional pathfinder is something intriguing - and as a story point, a character who would assumedly be sure of himself to be adaptable to most situations - a keen idea for a writer look to write about struggles. What makes Mike Blackburn a good pathfinder or is he, necessarily?
Ellis: He is both the best and the worst person to be in that situation, because... you know all those things that can stop us from doing something really dangerously stupid, like family and relationships and home and responsibility? Mike Blackburn doesn't have any of that left. That's why he got this job, but it's also why he should never have been given this job. He has not one actual damn thing to come back to. Or for.
Nrama: Mike finds Grace Moody while amidst a prison breakout, where she was imprisoned due to "Murderous sh--." Who is she, Warren?
Ellis: Technically, she's a dissident. She strongly disagrees with the way the colony is being run. So, you know, if you're the ancient and criminal President Barrow of the colony, she's a terrorist. To pretty much anyone else in Maincastle and the other district zones of the colony, she is simply someone who believes you should be able to live without fear of... the things that keep Barrow and his people in charge.
Nrama: Jason, who are Mike Blackburn and Grace Moody to you? What did you try to communicate in your designs of them?
Jason Howard: Mike is the one who is trained and supposed to be good at all this, but he finds himself in over his head on a world he doesn’t belong. Grace is at home, she knows the world and is very much in control of herself. Warren has written a couple really great characters in Mike and Grace, and my goal was to visually show their different mindsets in the way they approach and react to all the crazy things going on around them.
When developing their designs I first considered what would be practical for them in their situation. Mike is a professional, so I looked at modern military and force recon stuff. Grace is from a world that split off from ours about 100 years ago and in some ways is stuck in the past, but in others has advanced strangely. Her specific role in the world is explored in the story but generally she is one of the oppressed people, so her clothing is more utilitarian. After a lot of exploration, I finally settled on relatively simple looks for Grace and Mike, as the rest of the world is pretty complicated and it seemed a nice contrast.
Newsarama: For this series you're doing what are called 'Impact' variants, with you homaging artists who have influenced you. The first one is Todd McFarlane - can you talk about his influence?
Howard: Todd is probably the reason I am drawing comics. As a kid I drew all the time and liked comics, but seeing Todd’s art on Spider-Man was eye opening. The dynamics just seemed to jump off the page and everything looked cooler than real life. It was the thing that inspired me to want to draw comics. The process of learning and growing artistically led to me discovering lots of other artists of course, but Todd was the first.
Nrama: Can you reveal who might your other influences to be homaged in these variants will be?
Howard: I have a list that I will be working thru. Its been fun to think back to the different phases I went thru and the artists who really got me excited about comics. There are way too many for me to get to them all, but Mike Mignola and Bruce Timm are for sure coming up!
Nrama: What is the meaning of the title, ‘Cemetery Beach’?
Ellis: It's a location. It's the goal.
Nrama: This idea of colonization is something you've touched on numerous times - from Shipwreck toAuthority and even the reverse of that in Trees. In this case, it's a forgotten colony that humanity's trying to re-acquainted with. What do you think it is about the idea of civilization spreading - or attempting to - intrigues you so much to revisit it from different angles?
Ellis: Exploration is an essential human thing. I mean, obviously. It's how we covered so much of the planet and why we reach for other planets. Colonization, as a word, has a different spread of connotations. There can be something sinister in it. I mean, Jamestown was a nightmare. South America was decimated by European colonization. There are reasons why we talk about "decolonization" now. Sometimes, something mysterious - the vanished Roanoke colony, with the single word "Croatoan" left behind, baffled people for centuries. Exploration stories are almost always strange and terrible on some level. Just like stories about money or power or murder.
Nrama: What led you to dash off to the side of doing Trees with Jason for this new, original story Cemetery Beach?
Ellis: Trees is, frankly, really hard work for me to write, and generally not the most uplifting work I've ever done. It also requires a particular pace and tone for it to work the way I want it to. After 280 pages of that, we were both ready for a palate-cleanser.
Nrama: Jason has said in Image+ that for his part, Cemetery Beach came about partially from a request for him to do more action-oriented stories with you. Having known you for years now I know you are very adaptable to artists and involve them and their input into the written story to a deep degree. How did you take Jason's request for a more action-oriented story?
Howard: It started pretty much just like that, I wanted to draw something with more action.
Ellis: I remember asking Jason what he'd like to do next, as a palate-cleanser, and action came up among with a few other things. So, I sat around with the notion for a couple of months, came up with the core idea, and what we did next was what we did on Trees - sort of like mood-boarding in email, where we'd trade a ton of images found through mining Google Image Search, surrounding the basic idea with possibilities. We have more creepy photos of gas masks than most people would ever reasonably need.
And then I watched Mad Max Fury Road again. And then eight more times.
Nrama: Jason, so now with the book solicited and according to Warren most all of the series already drawn, how did it measure up for what you were asking for?
Howard: Really well, actually. One of the great things about creator-owned comics is the ability to craft the book into something that fits me as an artist. With Cemetery Beach it’s been really easy to do. The fast pace of the story keeps me excited drawing different things and allows me to explore different environments. Creating a believable world is something I like to do in all my books, but with this book it all seems to end up exploded or on fire. It’s also allowed me to push my action storytelling and have fun with movement and character dynamics on the page.
Nrama: Last question - do you have any touchstones, symbols or cues for what you've created with Cemetery Beach? Not necessarily influences, but is there stories, music, people, art, colors, places or experiences that particularly inform this that you can share?
Howard: The biggest visual touchstone for me on this project has been photos from World War I and World War II. Much of the visual language of the world and vehicles is inspired by these. Before I started drawing actual comic pages I filled pages of my sketchbook with drawings of old tanks and submarines and soldiers in uniform. All of it helped me get a feel for how I wanted the book to look.