Things get weird quickly in Joshua Hale Fialkov and Joe Infurnari’s “The Bunker.” A quintet of college students, about to graduate and set off on their new lives, finds a bunker that contains, among other things, a letter to each of them. The letters purport to be from their future selves, warning the students that if they continue on their current paths, they will bring on the apocalypse — and that might not even be the worst outcome.
“The Bunker” launches this week as a digital comic available to readers in two different ways: From comiXology or as a DRM-free file that can be downloaded directly from their site. Either way, it’s $1.99 per issue; the first issue is 34 pages, and after that a 12-page issue will be released monthly.
Both creators are well known in the comics world. Fialkov has been nominated for Eisner, Harvey, and Emmy awards, is the writer of “I, Vampire” for DC Comics and “Ultimate Comics Ultimates” for Marvel, and he has written a number of creator-owned graphic novels, as well. Infurnari is also an Eisner nominee and the artist for “Mush: Sled Dogs with Issues” and “Marathon,” both from First Second. We spoke with Fialkov and Infurnari about where this new comic came from, how they are making it — and where it is going.
CBR News: This is not an easy comic to summarize, so can you explain briefly what it is about?
Joshua Hale Fialkov: A group of friends discover a military style bunker, and inside it is information from their future selves explaining how if they continue to live their lives the way they are planning on, they are going to cause the apocalypse. They have to make decisions about what is important to them — how do they live their lives knowing everything they worked towards and dreamed of is going to lead to destruction?
I’m 33 years old, I have a kid and a mortgage and a wife. I had no idea when I made the decisions I made way back then that it would lead to where I am now. I met Joe [Infurnari] through Dean Haspiel, and we talked about a completely different project that didn’t happen. But because I was in the right place, in a bar at Baltimore Comic Con, and we happened to get introduced, it spun our lives in a radically different direction. Had I decided to go to bed that night, this book wouldn’t exist.
As the story moves forward, you will see everybody has a different motivation for what they are trying to accomplish. They don’t get along great now, and they sure don’t get along great at the end. They are all steering towards a destiny, and each of them sees a different destiny before themselves.
What we see in that first chapter is [the character] Grady being presented [with his future], and everyone else being presented a different option. Grady is our POV character. In his mind, it’s the truth, but as we go through the story, it’s a question of what is the truth.
Joe Infurnari: That’s where it gets into really uneasy waters, when we start to explore the fact that these are really just letters written from supposedly their future selves, but even then, there’s some doubt as to whether or not the person writing the letter is just manipulating the reader.
One of the challenges about writing a story like this is making it plausible to the reader. It all seems so crazy. How did you get past that?
Fialkov: I think part of it in that first chapter is you are seeing everybody as they get increasingly more convinced. The first arc is phase 1, getting over the fact that this thing is insane, just the idea that each of these letters talks to them in a personal way and reveals personal information that no one else could have. In the third chapter it is shaped a little bit differently; that POV character can’t be convinced that it is real until the truth of the letter is shown to her. It’s part of what I like about it: It’s five very different people, and those five different people have very different core beliefs that are butting up against one another.
Infurnari: It’s interesting to break down the mathematics of how they are going to convince themselves to do whatever they need to do for the future.
Fialkov: One of the core ideas is if you could go back and tell your teenage self what to do differently, they wouldn’t listen to you. When you’re young, you think you know everything. These characters are standing on the brink of adulthood, and they realize it’s more than just a path, it’s a cliff. They have to adapt or adjust. It’s not the strong suit of a 22 year old.
Have you read a lot of books about time travel?
Fialkov: I have written “Doctor Who” comics, and I have been watching “Doctor Who” since I was a kid. I think the “Back to the Future” trilogy is the greatest trilogy ever done. I’m crazy about time travel stuff, and the model for me was actually closer to something like Naoki Urawasa’s “20th Century Boys.”
Yes, I was going to ask you about that.
Fialkov: There is a structural similarity. That story does it in almost the opposite way — it’s less about where they are going than where they have been, but the core feeling of telling a story where you are seeing both sides of the story, every action you make today has its effects down the road, is very attractive to me.
Effect is always more important than cause. What we do with the setup of this book is make the cause as important, have it occurring simultaneously to the effect. That’s something pretty cool and something you don’t really see.
Do you have the story planned out to the end?
Fialkov: We have pretty solid long term plans for what we are going to do and what we are going to tell. There’s an ending. We know what the big picture is. How we get there is the fun for me. There’s a five- or six-page document that lays out in broad strokes what the story is.
What’s been great about the collaboration for me is that as I get pages to Joe, it changes the story I am telling. He inspires me. He pulls out details in the story that I didn’t see or didn’t think about. That allows the story to change and grow. By Chapter 3, we are still telling the same story in a broad sense, but the way we are telling it is different because of Joe’s amazing work.
Did you start with the events and then develop the characters, or vice versa?
Fialkov: They are kind of simultaneous for me. I like coming up with structural things, the shape of stories. The idea of telling a story in this shape, where we are kind of in a U, starting at the beginning and ending simultaneously, working toward what is in effect the middle, that is first. The idea of how you tell a transformative story about a character, the reason [the character] Grady in the first issue is transformed so completely from namby-pamby sociology student to genocidal maniac, finding ways to tell it from moment to moment, is really exciting to me. Once Grady was in place, it was about who were the characters that balance him out, who were the people in my own life that I have seen change and grow and become such radically different people than I expected.
Joe, what were the challenges for you as an artist?
Infurnari: Acting. I thought a lot about the acting. It felt like they needed to be real and intimate, that there is a psychological complexity to each of the characters. If we can believe that, the possibilities become so much broader. Like I said before, there are options for deception and manipulation in the letters and deception and manipulation amongst the five of them after they receive the letters.
One of the big challenges was that normally I am used to working on a graphic novel. I believe every story should have its own language, its own visual style, and usually that kind of comes out of the long process of laying out the whole book and penciling it. Usually it crystallizes by the time I start the inks. In this case, however, I don’t really know. I have whatever documents Josh has shared with me, but how we get there is still up in the air. I’m doing it from month to month so I don’t have that long period of visual art gestation that happens with the layouts and the pencils. I had to figure it all out in the first chapter.
Fialkov: For me, this has been one of the best collaborations I have ever had. There is a level of comfort we have with one another, talking about story and design, that for me is so rewarding. To some degree, making comics is like jazz music: It’s two guys going at it, and each one brings the other one to a different level. I have never worked on something that that’s truer than this book.
Infurnari: I would have to agree. I have some sense of the larger narrative, but for me, I’m just as much a reader as you are at this point because I’m looking forward to what’s going to happen in the next installment. I’m a big fan of the idea and of a lot of Josh’s work. He has been open to some edits I had for him, and I think we both raise each other with our collaboration.
The comic is done mostly in black and white, although the tint is slightly different in the present and the future sequences. Why did you do it this way?
Infurnari: The decision was made based on timing. Once we looked at the page I had done of the first episode, the option was still there when I finished it to consider doing color, but I’m not sure that color is really necessary. Since we are doing it digital, it is very do-it-yourself at this point. If we were to pair up with a publisher on this down the road and publish it as a book, that’s something to consider then, but for now I think it’s OK as it is.
Once the reader has spent a little bit of time with the story, they will be able to pick up the timing cues from the color. If we had the whole thing in full color, it would be less clear. Having the green tone for the future, that’s a simpler way of bringing people up to speed. There is going to be a rhythm of that.
Fialkov: I love black and white; I love using black and white on morally gray stories. We are telling a story that is rich in color, in terms of the morality and the authority, but we can do it without color. We can more effectively tell it with simpler lines.
What are your plans for publishing this — digitally and in print?
Fialkov: It’s going to be available on our website and on comiXology at the same time. We are going to release it early to subscribers to our newsletter to say “Thank you for giving us your e-mail address.”
Why are you releasing it two different ways?
Fialkov: We were initially going to do it through our site, but we are both extremely aware that the market is on comiXology right now. We like those guys a lot, I like the comiXology reader, I read a ton of comics on it, so it was a no-brainer to get it out into people’s hands that way. And then we gave an alternative, if you don’t want DRM, if you don’t want it controlled by Apple, the oligarchy, then you can also buy it directly from us. I think that the future is definitely a combination of the two, and I think that doing only one or the other is not necessarily the way to do it. Right now it’s me and Joe doing everything, so it’s literally just a practical thing that it’s easier to do those two than to have it on the iBookstore and Kindle, but eventually if we have collections, we will put them on the iBookstore. And if people have complaints or other ways they want to buy the book, we want them to tell us that. There’s literally no restriction on what we do, because Joe and I own it.
Your comic doesn’t use any of the digital-only techniques that are popping up lately. Why is that?
Fialkov: Mark Waid yelled at me: “Why aren’t you using the medium?” I have done digital comics for DC, but I don’t like writing like that. Joe, you weren’t interested in drawing like that?
Infurnari: We knew that this was going to be a digital comic when I was doing the first chapter. I definitely tried to rein it in a little bit to make sure the art was more or less compliant within the panel, so we would have our options open — if we were going to do Guided View, there would be ways that inter-panel movements would work with the action. I kind of did have a little bit of an eye to it, but I didn’t go whole hog with it.
Fialkov: It’s complicated enough, and I want to focus on telling the story rather than doing the bells and whistles. Waid is a genius. He can tell complex stories and still have them track and work through the infinite format. I don’t have the same competence for working in that format.
Infurnari: Even though the world is at stake here, we are doing inter-character drama, and zooms and swishes and panels are not going to be uniquely timed for our comic, they are going to be carried over from what comiXology would be doing. I think it would just get in the way. I think the story is complicated enough, but if we are talking about real human condition stuff, those sort of bells and whistles you get with some power point displays seem incongruous with the content. That would be just another thing people would have to get past to get to the heart of the story.