Compared to the age of the universe or just, y'know, time, July 2011 was really not all that long ago. But the comic book career of writer Sam Humphries has seen at least a few epochs pass in the past eight months.
July 2011 was the release of his self-published one-shot Our Love Is Real, a futuristic science fiction story that brought a whole new meaning to the term "man bites dog." With only a few published credits to his name at that point, the book caused a stir that buoyed him to his next self-published project, the six-issue modern man-meets-Aztecs series Sacrifice.
But that's not all: Humphries is also writing the John Carter: Gods of Mars miniseries for Marvel, debuting later this month, and in February was announced as the new co-writer of Ultimate Comics Ultimates, working with Jonathan Hickman as of May's issue #10. The plan is for Hickman to leave the book in the near future, with Humphries then taking over as sole writer. To put it in broad terms, in less than a year, Humphries has gone from a self-published book about interspecies romance to collaborating with one of Marvel's top writers on the series that Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch made famous.
It's the type of career trajectory that the term "meteoric rise" was coined for, and with Disney's live-action John Carter film now in theaters, we caught up via email with Humphries about his two new Marvel books, two series he has coming soon from BOOM! Studios and how his life has changed since becoming the comic book industry's latest rising star.John Carter:
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cover.Newsarama: Sam, you're writing John Carter: Gods of Mars for Marvel, which is thematically similar to your self-published book, Sacrifice. Since I know you hadn't read the Barsoom novels before starting work on Gods of Mars, and I imagine Sacrifice was already in the works by the time you were approached by Marvel, can we chalk that up to an eerie cosmic coincidence?
Sam Humphries: I think we can chalk it up to a reason far less eerie or cosmic, which is that some story structures just repeat themselves over and over again throughout human history. "Stranger in a strange land" aka "fish out of water" is definitely a story that works, a lot, and people dig it. So yeah, I was hardly original in that and neither was Edgar Rice Burroughs, but that's OK, that's how we build amazing stories over time. Besides, if I get convicted of theft on Sacrifice, it should be for stealing from Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
Nrama: One thing that's interesting to me about the John Carter series is that even though by today's standards, the story might not sound all that revolutionary due to everything we've seen in the past few decades, it was actually the prototype for so much of what we know of modern sci-fi and fantasy; it must have blown people's minds back in 1912. In writing Gods of Mars, is the approach basically to emphasize the things that made the story work in the first place? Maybe capture whatever that initial sense of wonder must have been?
Humphries: Yeah, when you make decisions like that, you think about what the appeal is, what the author intended, and the time period it came from. This book is literally a hundred years old. When it comes to narrative, particularly serial narrative, audiences are very sophisticated these days. So you try to zero in on the core of the author's message — not just the "point A to point B" of plot mechanics, but, things like, what is the author trying to say about being human, striving for a better life, falling in love? And you try to preserve that message, make that message hit home for a contemporary audience, using the tools provided in the source material — character, setting, and action. It's a delicate puzzle.John Carter:
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#2 cover.Nrama: Working with Ramon Perez on the book must be awesome, but that's the obvious part. Have you approached the collaboration at all differently than with past artists, simply because of the distinct visual style he established with Tale of Sand? (And on that book, the only writer he was collaborating with was a decades-old script.)
Humphries: Yeah, I actually approached this book with a technique I had never used before. I wrote this book plot-first, also known as "Marvel style." You don't create page-by-page and panel-by-panel breakdowns, you just write out the beats of each scene, in a prose, almost informal format. You may include some rough dialogue, so the artist can get an idea of the stakes or emotions, but much if not all of the dialogue is written after the pages are written.
I had never written a script like that, ever, and it scared me. But after seeing Ramon's incredible pages from Tale of Sand, I knew I had to get out of his way as much as possible. His layouts, his sense of design, his characters, his action — combined with the stunning colors of Jordie Bellaire — this book looks so good it will make you slap your momma. I'm so glad I made the leap to plot-first, and I have our talented editor Sana Amanat to thank for making sure I didn't make a total fool of myself.
Nrama: Turning to Ultimates, I'm curious to hear more about your working relationship with Jonathan Hickman, who you're co-writing with on the first arc. On one hand, he's one of the biggest writers at Marvel, but also, it wasn't that long ago when he was a new guy at Marvel, with a few acclaimed creator-owned books on his resume. Do you see yourselves as something of kindred spirits in that regard?Ultimates
#10 cover.Humphries: Yeah, I do. I don't know if he sees himself as a kindred spirit to a guy who wrote a book about dog sex, but tough luck, Hickman! We're like celestial twins now, and that's forever!! I can't convey how valuable it is to have him as a resource — not just when writing the book, but when thinking about story, or superheroes, or writing in a larger universe, or just being a n00b creator trying to make the most of an incredible opportunity. He's been very honest and generous through the whole process. What a gent.
Nrama: Since Ultimates is really your first superhero book, what type of Marvel (or otherwise) comics of that ilk have helped to inspire and shape you as a writer? (Also, do you insist that people refer to the comic as "Ultimate Comics Ultimates" at all times?)
Humphries: Arune Singh, Marvel's master of marketing, would give me an "Arune" hairstyle if I ever referred to the book as anything less!
Man, I was a huge Marvel Zombie as a kid. I read thousands and thousands of pages of Marvel Comics. It would be impossible to detangle how and when Marvel books have influenced my writing… it's permanently fused to my spine, for better or for worse. I will cite a somewhat obscure Marvel book that has stuck with me over the years: Emperor Doom by David Michelinie and Bob Hall. That sh*t blew my mind! I would like to blow minds, too.
Nrama: And more specifically, how much of a fan have you been of the Ultimate Universe in general? It originally started as sort of a streamlined, more accessible version of the Marvel Universe, but now it has very much its own history and identity. How do you see the "place" of the Ultimate line within the current comic book landscape?John Carter:
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cover.Humphries: Oh, I love the Ultimate books. Everything from the early days of Millar and Hitch on The Ultimates, to Miles Morales, who I really think is one of the best new superhero characters in a long time. He'll outlive us all.
I call the Ultimate Universe "Marvel on HBO." It's a shorthand way of saying, these are the Marvel characters you know and love, but a little edgier, a little more morally ambiguous, a little grittier. You can shake the characters a little harder, and by doing so gain a fuller understanding of what they're made of. The Ultimate Universe "goes there." I think there's a need for that in the current comics landscape, absolutely.
I do wish they'd let me make the characters swear like sailors, but you can't have everything. Probably for the best. Hi mom!Nrama: Turning to some of your upcoming BOOM! Studios projects — Fanboys vs. Zombies is set at Comic-Con International in San Diego. How much has your real-live con experiences shaped the story?
Humphries: I tend to keep my real-life experiences out of the book because they are too saucy and scintillating for the page. Besides, if I put all my friends in the book I'd get all precious about killing them off, and no one wants to read a zombie book where no one gets killed, right?Nrama: Also at BOOM! is Higher Earth, which sounds like the highest concept series you've embarked on yet. What can you say about how the story came together? Is it an idea that's been percolating for a while, waiting for the right opportunity to come out?
Humphries: Man, who knows? I'm not experienced enough as a writer, or faded enough as a human being to speculate on where ideas come from. BOOM! approached me and wanted to do my "sci-fi follow up" to Our Love Is Real. I had a couple great conversations with editor-in-chief, Matt Gagnon, who has been my bud since the days when I was at MySpace and he was at Meltdown Comics. We talked a lot about what makes an ongoing series successful, not just on the sales charts but in the mindshare of the audience and the hearts of readers.
Those discussions really focused my thinking when I sat down to come up with my "sci-fi follow up" which was crucial, because unbeknownst to BOOM!, I didn't really have a "sci-fi follow up" at the time. But as soon as I wrote down the first paragraph of Higher Earth, I knew it was it. I knew it was the one.
Nrama: To wrap up, it's been a fairly rapid rise for you in terms of going from relative obscurity to one of the busier names in mainstream comics. Just on a personal level, how can you describe that experience? And with so many books in the works right now, how much of a transition is it to keep your focus on several comics at once, rather than just one or two passion projects?
Humphries: I'd describe the experience like this: it's been f*cking awesome!!!
I won't lie, it's a challenge to work on all these books concurrently. But then again, it was a challenge to write my first story about a beloved Jim Henson creation in Fraggle Rock. It was a challenge to write and self-publish a one-shot about dog sex. It was a challenge to write and self-publish a six-issue, full-color limited series about a guy trapped in a dead civilization.
The best reward for conquering a challenge is to have the opportunity to face a new challenge. I don't know where I'd be in my life if I didn't enjoy that. I hope it never ends. To quote Thor from the original Secret Wars (my first comic), "The doors of heaven open for warriors who rejoice to have a battle like this thrust on them by chance." If you don't like to be challenged, then you're in the wrong business. This is where I want to be. I worked my ass off to get here, and you better believe I'll work my ass off to stay here.
- Sam Humphries Joins Jonathan Hickman on ULTIMATES In May
- Sam Humphries Repeats Self-Published Success with SACRIFICE
- Bizarre Love Quadrangle: Warped One-Shot OUR LOVE IS REAL