I was innocently flicking through this month’s copy of Diamond Previews a few days ago, finding things I might like to buy this coming April, when I came across Nonplayer. To cut a long story short, it looked amazing. The art was graceful and epic and completely different to everything else in the catalogue. The story was extremely compelling, a young girl in a futuristic world withdraws from her workaday life into an epic fantasy game (like WOW but, like, awesome?) now there’s a concept we can all get into.
I didn’t want to wait till the April release date to find out more, so GCB got in touch with the series creator, writer/artist Nate Simpson, and we had a Q&A session… which was nice.
First though, here’s a preview that’ll make you every bit as excited as us:
All video game artists want to be comic artists. For the most part, anybody who likes drawing swords and robots has two possible career paths — you can work in video games and make a steady paycheck, or you can work in comics and enjoy some autonomy. There are a lot of artists who live like migrant workers — doing the game thing long enough to build up some savings, then taking a year or two off to do a personal project. When the money runs out, it’s back to the game-farm. There are a few of us who go off to do special effects, animation, even indie games. But the pattern is usually the same.
In my case, I left Gas Powered Games to write a screenplay for a space opera. A few months in, I realized it was total crap and had a bit of a breakdown. As I was contemplating seppuku, a friend named Ray Lederer suggested I leave the movie idea alone for a bit and do a comic, instead. It was such a huge relief not to be trapped under the weight of that unwieldy mess anymore, and the new story manifested literally overnight. Since then, I’ve been pushing as hard as I can on Nonplayer. There still isn’t much in the way of a profit model or exit strategy, so I may well end up having to go back to games for a bit to recharge my bank account. But I love this story enough that it’ll get done in any case — it just may take some time to get to the end. I really hope that if I do have fans, they’re willing to hang in there with me between issues.
What was it like desiging a video game to be a setting in a comic? And how similar is building a world on a page to building one in a computer?
The major conceit of Nonplayer is that the game world is a complex and existentially valid universe in its own right. When you look at films like Tron or the Matrix, there’s always something that’s intentionally artificial about the digital realm (for some reason, they’ve always got that cold bluish tint, for example). But I don’t think that’s the way it’s really going to play out. Instead, games are going to keep getting more beautiful and immersive, and that’s going to contrast with the progressive dilapidation of the real world. By the time Nonplayer takes place, the games provide a much richer, more rewarding existence than anything that’s available in meatspace. So as far as designing the game world, it’s really more a question of creating a world that’s a fantasy paradise — a place where you’d want to spend time if your day job involved selling tamales to dour salarymen.
When you’re designing a setting for a video game, you’ve always got to keep costs in the back of your mind. Everything you come up with has to work on a machine with limited storage and speed, and everything has to be built by artists with limited time. So there’s a real premium placed on expressing an idea in as simple, direct, and elegant a way as possible. Expressed another way, a big part of your job as a concept artist is to worry about how what you’re making will impact all those people who live further down the pipeline. And that gets pretty exhausting (or should, anyway — there are plenty of concept artists who just concentrate on making pretty paintings that are generally useless to staff artists). You can imagine what a sense of liberation there is when the only limitation on your imagination is hand fatigue. That probably accounts for some of the extra-noodly detail that pops up in Nonplayer. It’s pretty self-indulgent stuff.
Is the story based on your own experiences? Have you ever found yourself retreating into a fantasy to escape reality?
Yeah, I’ve definitely had times in my life where I’ve treated gaming as a drug. In general, the tougher things have gotten, the more prone I’ve been to getting completely lost inside a game. Half-Life 2 basically owned me, as did Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. I’ve consciously avoided MMOs because I’ve seen entire lives consumed by them. It’s a tough thing to enforce, because my wife works at a game company that makes MMOs. As research for Nonplayer, we played Aion for a few weeks, and I quickly sensed how easy it would be to just forsake the real world for this new place where my actions felt consequential.
I’m sure a lot of what happens in the story reflects my own concerns about gaming as a social force. I know a lot of people who work in games who wonder if games are an art form or whether they belong more on the drugs/porn/gambling end of the stimulus spectrum. Of course, some games are artistically valid, and we’d all like to be involved in a Katamari Damacy or a Portal. But I’ve personally designed female characters, for example, of whom I was later ashamed — game companies are very male places, and sometimes it’s difficult to resist the quick acclaim you get for making cheesecake. I see Nonplayer as an opportunity to redeem myself a little — I wanted to draw (and write) some real women for a change. My wife has been especially helpful in keeping things on the level. I’m trying to make a book she’ll be proud to show her friends.
Does your story go beyond the planned 6 issue mini-series? Do you have a longer story to tell?
That’s so far in the future that I have to say I haven’t thought too hard about it. Yes, I do believe the setting and characters are rich enough (and the ending open-ended enough) that more could be done with them. But then again, sometimes it’s best to leave on a high note. I do have another story I’ve been working on in the background that I’m very excited about, so I’ll probably shift over to that for a while once Nonplayer is done. But who knows? If Nonplayer is well received, that might change my perspective a bit.
How long have you had the ideas for Nonplayer?
The weird thing about Nonplayer was how spontaneously the whole thing manifested. I think there’d been a lot of back-pressure built up over the fifteen years I’d been working on the previous space opera idea. There was just this huge release of tension when I put that aside, and Nonplayer came flooding in. In fact, most of it came together while I was on the toilet. I burst out of the bathroom babbling to my wife about fantasy creatures and dystopian cityscapes, and I’m sure the whole thing was very confusing for her. She’s a patient woman.
Is it tough both writing and drawing? What’s your process?
The whole thing is incredibly difficult for me. I’ve got some drawing experience from working in games, but the process of making a series of intelligible panels that tells a story requires a whole new toolbox. But as hard as that is, the writing is particularly challenging. I’ve been reading a lot of books on story and screenwriting, and I’ve been grappling with dialogue, especially. I’ve gotten some harsh critiques in that area, so I’m pretty revision-crazy when it comes to character dialogue. I can’t say I’m thrilled with it at the moment, but I hope I’ve gotten it to a place where it’s fairly unobtrusive.
My process starts out with a conventional, movie-style script that I break down into page-chunks. Then I do some very rough sketches over a couple of days, just to get a sense of what my characters and settings look like (but not too detailed, because I want to preserve some of that thrill of discovery for the final drawings, themselves). Everything from then on happens in my computer. I draw and color all the artwork in Photoshop using a Wacom Cintiq tablet monitor, which lets me save and revise artwork without worrying about irreversibly damaging the original page.
What or who has had the biggest influence on your art and writing?
My Big Four influences are Moebius, Geof Darrow, William Stout, and Arthur Rackham. I came across all four artists in my very early teens, and I’ve worshiped them ever since. Stout’s creatures and landscapes are marvels of balance and organic flow, and his dinosaurs in particular were responsible for my spending my first three years of college pursuing a career in paleontology. Rackham’s trees and fantasy characters are not just beautiful, they’re haunting. Geof Darrow’s work on Hard Boiled completely blew away my idea of what a comic could be — it’s still one of the greatest achievements in the history of comics, in my opinion. And Moebius is the total package — just a gargantuan imagination spewing out whole universes by the dozen. And the man can draw. And his color is juicy. I love juicy color.
As far as my writing — I’d be disrespecting real authors by implying I’ve got any direct stylistic influences. But certainly Tolkien has been a huge inspiration, and the writings of Vernor Vinge have opened my eyes to new possibilities in science fiction. Tonally, I think movies like The Children of Men and The Thin Red Line have had an effect on the way I think about story. And I really love the way Dan Akryod implied that vast Lovecraftian mythology behind Ghostbusters. It’s so great, how with just a few strategically-placed non sequiturs about “Gozer” and “a great and moving Tor,” you get this feeling that there’s some Very Scary Shit lurking on the other side of the veil.
How do you keep yourself disciplined to write/draw? Are you ever prone to procrastination or do you get to work easily?
I did the first half of the first issue at home, which was easy enough because my wife didn’t have a job and having her lurking around the house kept me pretty honest. But as soon as she went off to work, I started slipping. Eventually, I ended up renting a studio with a few other artists, and it’s a good half-hour bike ride from my house. Having to wake up at a certain time and commute somewhere has helped me to build up a routine. Now if I’m not out of the house by eight, I start to feel anxious. Habits are powerful things!
What current series’ of (comic) books are you reading/would recommend (if any )?
I’m sort of the Rip van Winkle of comics. I read them religiously up to about 1993, and then didn’t read anything except Hellboy until last year. So in my brain, Jim Lee is still drawing X-Men and Todd McFarlane has just started his new Spider Man book. And Appleseed was the last manga ever drawn. But since I’ve fallen back into comics, I’ve been gobbling up as much as I can. I think my favorite right now is Yotsuba, by Kiyohiko Azuma. I love that book. I’m also really excited about some of the creator-owned stuff that’s been coming out lately — King City, by Brandon Graham, and Orc Stain, by James Stokoe are both great examples of imaginations off the leash. I’m enjoying BPRD, too. If anybody wants to recommend some new comics to me, I’m all ears.
Nonplayer is out on April 6, 2011 from Image Comics.