Terrorism, black hat hackers, organized crime -- when it comes to crime and punishment in the 21st century, it all comes down to the numbers. Or in the case of BOOM! Studios' new series Codebreakers, it's the cryptanalysts who crack the codes of the nation's enemies. But what happens when this team of hard-hitting mathematicians lose one of their number? Newsarama caught up with writer Carey Malloy on the premise of the book, on making math fun, and on the joys of letting nerds be the stars of the show.
Newsarama: Carey, for those who haven't heard about the series, can you tell us a little bit about the premise of what Codebreakers is going to be about?
Carey Malloy: Codebreakers focuses on the fictional four member "alpha team" in the FBI's very real Cryptanalysis Unit. The book has a procedural feel at its core, but since you have to hit the ground running in a comic, we found a way to go beyond the day-in day-out happenings at their FBI headquarters and set these four introverted desk jockeys on a wild adventure that will actually put them in direct opposition to the Bureau. We discover that the bad guys aren't the only people hiding behind codes.
Nrama: When you're looking at a book with a team like this, there's a lot of opportunity for conflicting characters, not unlike what your colleague Mark Sable did with the terror-plot think-tank over in Unthinkable. Could you walk us through a little bit about your protagonists here?
Malloy: The primary characters begin with an almost familial bond. They're connected by their love of math, of code, of geekly pursuits. There's a lot of nerd-oriented, good-natured ribbing, but they're very close. It isn't until one of them vanishes, and another is revealed to have a secret, stowed away past, that the group's bonds are tested. It's definitely a story that begins and ends with the team as a unit of sorts, but the journey pushes and pulls them all over the place.
Nrama: In a lot of ways, your subject matter seems almost like an article for WIRED, rather than a pitch for a comic. Could you tell us a bit about where the idea for Codebreakers came from? And with the wide range of police procedurals out there, what do you feel makes this series stand apart?
Malloy: This is ultimately Ross Richie's baby. He really wanted to do something involving the FBI's CRRU (The Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit) and a group of Codebreakers. I gravitated towards the idea, but we both knew that to tell a rich story and to also make it stand apart, it would have to blow these characters' lives apart. In television procedurals you can gradually evolve a character over seasons, but we didn't have that luxury. Something needed to happen quickly to get these characters out of their comfort zone and I think we accomplished that. Without giving too much of the central mystery away, it all revolves around the vanishing and apparent suicide of one of their fellow "codebreakers."
Nrama: Is there a particular instance of cryptanalysis, either in real-life or in your story, that you have been particularly blown away by?
Malloy: Definitely the Provenzano Bible. Google it immediately, but essentially a forty year manhunt ended with officials finding a mafia boss living in a shack in the middle of nowhere, issuing hits and business orders, using his well-worn code-riddled Bible to secretly document it all.
Nrama: Looking at cryptology as a science, it doesn't seem like the most eye-catching thing in the world. For you, how do you go about setting a visual hook for a profession that is based primarily on numbers?
Malloy: Our four primary characters have specific areas of expertise that help them crack ciphers. But we couldn't have people just standing over computer monitors for pages at a time. Instead, we occasionally go into the mind of each of these codebreakers and see how they view the world. Early on we started calling them their "powers." For example, we have a cryptolinguist who sees code in everyday human language. Her "power" looks a lot like one of those red-tinted cereal box decoder panels. Someone tells her something and she can see through the panel, decoding word-use, intonation, and inflection to see what this person is hiding.
Nrama: Continuing with the art, you're working with Scott Godlewski. What do you like most about his style? What do you feel he brings to a project like this?
Malloy: Scott is a God among men. I saw character sketches he did, even before he started on the book proper, that changed how I WROTE these characters. He gives so much personality and weight to people that only lived in my head. Seeing what he's done in the first issue really inspired a lot of what happens in the following books. This guy is a superstar and I'm so happy to be working with him on my first book. Suck it, Scott. The compliments are going to keep on coming.
Nrama: You've been working with BOOM! for a while now, having worked on Tag and Second Wave for the publisher in the past. You're also a working screenwriter. With that all being said, how do you feel your work has changed since teaming up with the company? How do you feel Codebreakers is different from your previous work?
Malloy: Well, comic writing is the hardest thing I've ever done creatively. Hands down. And anyone who says it's not hard is crazy-go-nuts. Comic writing has made screenwriting seem pleasant. There's such a high level of efficiency you have to be operating on at all times in comic writing, it's quite a challenge, but also so rewarding. I've been reading comics for two decades and to be able to be a part of this world is just exhilarating and worth the backbreaking crafting it requires. In many ways, comic writing has made me a better screenwriter because it's made it easier to hone in on what is telling your story and what isn't. Codebreakers in particular was an interesting challenge because I'd never done a straight action/thriller. I'm pretty partial to elements of the supernatural and realize now how much of a storytelling crutch that can be. This strange thing happens.... because the ghost did it and ghosts can do anything!
Nrama: Finally -- for those who are still on the fence about this book -- are there any teases you might be able to give to bring those stragglers on board? Anything you're excited to see hit the page?
Malloy: I really wanted to make the reader a part of the story. This series is loaded with character-based twists and reversals and intrigue that I love to see in comics, that will also, I hope, bring readers into the headspace of a codebreaker. Also, there's torture. Also, things might blow up. Also, there is funny. And blood. And nerds being badasses.