SDCC 2010: JJ Miller Talks MASS EFFECT

Teased and hinted at in the two blockbuster Mass Effect video games, videogame publisher BioWare has partnered once again with Dark Horse to trace the origins of one of the series most enigmatic characters: the Illusive Man. As discussed today at the "Video Game Comics – The Next Big Thing'" panel at Comic-Con International: San Diego, the Mass Effect phenomenon has found a welcome second home in the world of comics.

In the upcoming comic book miniseries Mass Effect: Evolution set for launch January 2011, Dark Horse is turning back the clock of time to the First Contact War and the formative years of the major player known as the Illusive Man. In the games he's been portrayed as the shadowy head of the pro-humanity organization Cerberus, pulling strings behind the scenes but also not averse to getting his hands dirty once in awhile. In this new series, readers will be introduced to a younger and very different man who's just learning of the forces he'll be up against as humanity becomes more engaged with the broader universe.

Story-wise, this is a prequel to the various Mass Effect video games and novels that have come out before, but in comics it’s a sequel of sorts to the comic series Dark Horse published earlier this year. At the beginning of the year, Dark horse published Mass Effect: Redemption focused on the story of the characters between the first and second games. This new prequel came about based on that series success, so much that Dark Horse is reuniting the creative team for this new miniseries. Comics writer John Jackson Miller and artist Omar Francia are once again joined by BioWare's key writer for the Mass Effect games, Mac Walters, to tell this in-continuity tale. For more, we talked with John Jackson Miller for more.

Newsarama: The first comic miniseries, Mass Effect: Redemption, took place between the first & second games. Where is Mass Effect: Evolution taking place in the Mass Effect timeline, John?

John Jackson Miller: Mass Effect: Evolution takes place well before the first game, in the time known as the First Contact War. Early in our exploration of the galaxy, humans discover a mass relay in the orbit of Pluto – it’s like a space transit system. This happens early in Mass Effect continuity; the device allows humanity to travel to other parts of the galaxy.

The First Contact War happens several years after that and is a conflict with a race called the Turians; a major character in the first Mass Effect game, Saren, is of this species. We find out that humanity is not necessarily welcome in the broader galaxy. With the discovery and use of these mass relays, we’ve headed into territories that are either owned by others or off limits to us. Our story in Mass Effect: Evolution takes place during this time and we’re dealing specifically with the origin of the Illusive Man, a major character from first two games.

Nrama: What can you tell us about the Illusive Man’s story here?

Miller: Not much has been revealed about the Illusive Man so far --- his appearances in the games have been shrouded in mystery. At the time of the games, the Illusive Man is the leader of Cerberus, a pro-humanity front. He makes some important appearances in the last comic series, Redemption as the person pulling the strings behind our main characters’ mission to search for Shepard’s body and thwart the plans of the Shadow Broker. In this new series Mass Effect: Evolution, we get to see the beginnings of the Illusive Man and how he came to be such a knowledgeable person in the galaxy, as well as learn how he developed some of the views he has about aliens species and the threats in space.

I think one of the things we capture in the Illusive Man’s origin is this need for caution that he feels humanity needs to approach the wider galaxy with. This period in the Mass Effect timeline is very much a “gold rush” – settlers are going out into the galaxy as fast as they can. In this new comic series, the Illusive Man is one of the few people who worries that this may not be a good thing. We don’t understand everything we’ve encountered. Humanity has already discovered several alien artifacts, including the mass relays; we don’t comprehend their origins. I think the Illusive Man believes he’s a protective force for humanity because he fears the unknown that’s out there in the stars.

Nrama: One of the big bads of the Mass Effect universe has been the Reapers. Will they play a role in the comic?

Miller: I don’t want to give too much away about what may be coming up. It’s always interesting dealing with telling the prequel to an established story: many people who’ll be reading the comic have played the games, and know about some of the things that the Illusive Man is worrying about. And that’s not a bad thing – the awareness of the future events in the Mass Effect universe helps the reader know ahead of time that the Illusive Man is not just jousting at nothing. Some of the things he’s worried about are things that actually come true; whether or not they’ll appear in this prequel comic will remain a mystery.

Nrama: Well, we know the Illusive Man is in this – a younger one. Will we be seeing younger versions of any other characters in Mass Effect: Evolution?

Miller: I’m not sure how much I can reveal, but my short answer is yes – there will certainly be appearances from characters people know and have heard of, from the games.

Nrama: This is the second Mass Effect comic series you’ve done, and Dark Horse has brought back the full creative team. What’s it like to come back, and be able to do it again with Mac and Omar?

Miller: It’s interesting. This new comic series is a lot more open-ended than the first, which was nestled between the first and second games. With that, we had a specific destination for each of the characters to end up in for the beginning of Mass Effect 2. With this new comic Mass Effect: Evolution, the readers shouldn’t assume that this story is going to take it all the way to the opening of the first game – this actually takes place a long time before that.

That said, it’s not necessarily the case that this takes place in a small amount of time – a week or something. Since we’re dealing with what happened before everything you know, the playing field has opened up more. A lot of things we’re showing in Mass Effect: Evolution are things people will be seeing for the first time. I like the idea of being able to show the beginnings of these things.

Also, since this takes place before the first Mass Effect game I think it’s ideal for people who haven’t played the games to enjoy it. A lot of gamers will be interested for the back story it’s telling of characters they’ve been introduced to, but for new readers it’ll be enjoyable as well.

Nrama: Can you describe how the writing process works with Mac? He’s coming to it from writing the video games, but you’re the comic book expert.

Miller: Mac is the lead writer at BioWare for Mass Effect 2, and in both comics series he drafted the plot. It’s been the job of Omar Francia and myself to translate that into comics form. It’s interesting that as we’ve gone along, we’ve found that storytelling in comics and video games are a bit different. They’re both visual mediums, but some devices you’d use for in video games don’t play out that well in comics, and vice versa. In comics, it’s much easier to having a running conversation between characters while they’re moving in one direction, while in video games the conversation is normally a pause in movement – everybody stops and talks. We can also show things happening in two places at the same time a little easier. That’s one of a number of differences we’ve found as we’ve done the books, and I think that it’s interesting for everybody involved to see how things develop.

Nrama: I know you’re busy writing comics, but have you played the Mass Effect games?

Miller: I’ve played both games, but I can’t say that I played very well! Fortunately, you can set the game on easy mode and not foul it up too badly. I’ve had experience with another BioWare game, Knights of the Old Republic, which we did a 50-issue comic series on – we didn’t adapt the video game, but used it as springboards for our own stories. With the BioWare games, they have these interesting high-concept plots that inform us as writers and artists on how to depict and render the universe. From the setting to the characters and equipment, it’s very rich. Working on Mass Effect specifically, we got to see some of the production drawings for some of the things we’re using in the comic books and we got to understand why things looked the way they did, and what they were going for. With Mass Effect, it’s not a stock sci-fi universe but something brimming with creativity on every level.

Nrama: You’re well-schooled in comic books and their universes – why do you think Mass Effect has been so popular with video game and comic book fans? What’s the hook that makes it more than just a fun shoot-em up and something people want to know the story to?

Miller: Like I said, with Mass Effect they’ve created a universe that is fairly well-drawn and has immense depth. One of the problems with video game comics in general is that they try to repeat exactly what you see in the video game, and don’t explore world the game set up – so in the comic you’re seeing stuff you already saw in the video game. When you’re doing comics based on video games, I think it’s important to set it in the world of the video game – not just the linear story of the game.

With the first Mass Effect comic series, Redemption,I think people caught on pretty quick that this was more than just an adaptation and that BioWare was deeply involved in the story. And having Mac in as the plotter, you can see how this is something that’s integrally connected with the video game universe. What happens in these comics count, and as a result we ended up having to go back to press on the first two issues of Mass Effect: Redemption when fans bought it up. I think when fans of the video game realized it wasn’t an adaptation, but something that seeks to embellish and show things that they haven’t seen in the games then they were hooked.

Video game comics: worthwhile?

Twitter activity