Note: This article contains some adult language.
Y’know, common sense, and years of horror films dictate that if one ventures to a supposedly deadly place like the Bermuda Triangle, and survives, you might want to wonder about how your life is about to take a nosedive. Really, when’s the last time someone went to the Bermuda Triangle and ended up in a better place? That’s one of the many questions Taylor Devlin asks himself, in Oni Press‘ “Borrowed Time,” after the intrepid reporter returns from the infamous Triangle. As an ongoing series of graphic novels, “Borrowed Time” is another unique offering from Oni Press, as the American comic book market rarely sees ongoing OGN series (they mostly come from Oni), and it also promises to be a story with origins in sci-fi, but not a typical genre story. In part one of CBR’s two part spotlight on the book, CBR News spoke with “Borrowed Time” writer Neal Shaffer (of “Last Exit Before Toll” fame) about the first volume of this series, which hits stores in May.
Neal, thanks for taking the time to talk with us during March Madness. I know you’re a big fan. Let’s begin with the basics: what is “Borrowed Time” all about?
Essentially, it’s a non-scientific, non-sci-fi look at the Bermuda Triangle. We have our main character, who’s a journalist, and gets sent on a trip to the Bermuda Triangle to debunk it, to prove there’s nothing to it. He doesn’t want to go, he’s ambivalent, but he takes the boat trip and has a crazy accident at sea. He’s knocked out and wakes up later, and everything seems fine, relatively speaking. The boat’s been turned over, but he seems fine, and eventually gets rescued. Eventually he realizes he’s shifted into a world like the world he knew, but time has shifted, so he’s ten seconds away from everything that we know as reality. My idea is that there are places where we lose things, and what happens is that they slip through these seams, into a different timeline a few seconds away. He decides he has to work his way back to his world. The first book is about falling into that world and deciding to get back, which we’ll chronicle in subsequent volumes.
So where’d that idea come from? Some people have compared it to “Lost,” with the crazy island and such, but is that a fair comparison?
Things might be somewhat similar, but I’ve never seen a single episode of “Lost.” I think that it’s probably a fair comparison, but I had nothing to do with that, you know what I mean? It’s just that I’ve sort of always been into those more philosophical science fiction stories, because I’m not really into sci-fi and not really into fantasy. But those smarter, more meditative stories have always interested me. I think you can see that in “One Plus One” and seeds of it in “Last Exit Before Toll.” The comparison to “Lost” is probably valid, but in terms of inspiration, I’ve never seen the show, so I can’t comment.
How long do you intend for the series to run?
It’s ongoing to a point. I have an idea in mind for the ending, and I’m not going to reveal it right now [laughs], but I have an idea how I want it to end up. How long it takes to get there, I’m not sure: there’s so much that goes into putting a book out, and hopefully Joe stays with the book, that’s my wish, so that’ll have an effect on it. There’s production schedules, shit like that, that unfortunately affects what you can do. If everything falls into place, you can expect several more books.
You mentioned that philosophical approach: so can I take it you’re a philosophy buff?
Well, I meant more “grounded,” not necessarily philosophical in the strictest sense. The press release compares the book to “Twilight Zone,” which is a good comparison. I’ve always been drawn to stories with a sci-fi premise, where it’s used really as an excuse to tell a human story, of people who’ve been put in strange situations. For me, it’s an interesting way to do it. Maybe philosophical isn’t the right word – perhaps thoughtful?
You’ve mentioned that Taylor is the main character, but can you introduce us to the rest of your cast?
There’s his girlfriend, who’s there at the beginning and will be there at the end, but how much we’ll see of her between those times is still up in the air. She’s important, and she’ll be around. In the first book, there’s an old man he meets, who explains what’s going on, and in subsequent volumes, the idea is that he’s a journalist for a reason, and he’s going to tell the stories of people that he meets along the way, along with his own story. It’s almost like he’s doing reporting of this other world, filing dispatches back to this world. There will be a couple of characters that are consistent throughout, who get established more in the second book, but there’s a revolving cast as well. Part of the idea behind making this an ongoing book is to have a rich set of characters that he could interact with as the story goes on.
Along with these recurring characters, will there be sci-fi later in the book, or is it merely the catalyst for the story?
It’s more of a grounded human tale throughout. You’ve got a sci-fi premise that isn’t going anywhere, but while there will be strange things, out of the ordinary or a little fantastic, I don’t think anyone looking for a sci-fi story will be too happy. It’s got the initial sci-fi element that launches the story, but it’s not driving it: it’s a character story.
Another interesting element is the marketing you’re doing, namely the poster and limited edition t-shirt. What’s that all about?
I’ve always been interested in trying to make my books more accessible to people in the outside world, who aren’t already comic book fans, because I really like comics as a form, and you can do a lot in them you can’t do anywhere else. I believe if more people got a hold of them, they’d maybe start to feel the way I feel about them, so I started thinking about ways to get people more interested. There are lots of people who used to like them, but aren’t into them anymore, and we need to get them back. I got in touch with a well-respected graphic designer, Tony Larson, who works for Girl Skateboards. I asked him to design a t-shirt I’d have my main character wear during the story, put it out for sale, and then hopefully fans of good art, Tony, skateboarding and such, will have their interest piqued and come to comics through that. When they see Joe’s work and read the story, I hope they’ll think “damn, I didn’t know you could do shit like that in comics” and have their minds changed. It’s step one of extending the reach of comics and getting people to see how cool they can be. We’re also doing limited edition posters, personally signed and numbered, which we’ll sell at conventions. There are people who just like this kind of limited edition art and maybe we can bring them to comics, show them that it’s not just kid’s shit: there’s more to the medium and we can tell mature stories.
But if you wanted more readers, couldn’t you just do a superhero crossover? You could join “Infinite Crisis” and be Earth Oni or something.
[laughs] Actually, no, I don’t think anyone is lining up to let me do superhero crossovers [laughs].
Like you said, there is a misconception of the industry, despite the wide breadth of work being produced. Why do you think those misconceptions persist, even with “Maus,” “Pedro & Me,” “Sandman” and their ilk out there getting loads of mainstream attention?
Frankly, it’s because Marvel and DC keep it that way. It’s not that Marvel and DC don’t put out good books, because they certainly do have talented people doing good books, but if you go into a store with a rack of comics, you’ll probably see the worst of the worst. The kind of stuff that you & I look at and say, “How the fuck did that get published?” because its terrible. We know there’s a “Pedro & Me” out there or a “Maus” out there.
And a “Last Exit Before Toll.”
[laughs] I wish more people knew. I just think that there’s still a lot of crap coming out and unfortunately it has the biggest marketing budgets, and the greatest recognition to those who don’t know about the good stuff. I probably shouldn’t talk shit about Marvel and DC, because maybe some day they’ll want to pay me, but fuck it, it’s true. There’s a lot of crap coming out and not just from them. Basically it comes down to your main question, that it’s the crap that people see and then movies get made, people talk about this comics renaissance, and sure it’s great, but for every “Ghost World,” there’s three fuckin “X-Men.” So, yeah, it’s not like a whole lot has changed, and not as much as I think needs to change. There’s always going to be a place for those books, but I wish there was more recognition for the mature work that is out there, without the marketing dollars and recognition. So the t-shirt is all about a grass roots way of getting the word out there about a different kind of comic book.
So the message I’m getting is that buying “Borrowed Time” saves the comic book medium as an art form?
[laughs] I don’t know about all that.
Let’s move onto Joe Infurnari, your artist, who is unknown outside of an appearance in CBR’s Comic Book Idol. He came up through an Oni talent search?
Yeah, yeah, he came up through two converging forces. He had done a story for the talent contest, but before that I was introduced to him by a friend of a friend and thought “damn, I have to get this guy.” I was really impressed by his work and I later found out he’d submitted a story to the talent search, which made it that much easier to go to Oni, and show them the guy I wanted. It wasn’t a hard sell. They saw his work and they were onboard. I think he would have got work anyway, he’s that damn good, but I fought for him because I wanted him on this project. I’ve been blessed with a lot of good artists on my projects, and it makes everything so much easier, so with Joe, I’m going to try to work with him as much as he’ll let me. He’s a star in the making.
You’ve done most of your work with Oni and you seem to really like them: so why are they the company for Neal Shaffer?
They don’t have a niche defined by style, they have a niche defined by an identity of good independent comics, while respecting their creators. When you pick up an Oni book, you tend to know that you’re going to be getting something that will at least be a cut above much of what’s out there, with talented people behind it. That’s what Oni does. It’s great to be associated with them, they treat me well and it’s a really friendly environment. They’re the only ones I’ve worked for so far, and while that may change, I don’t plan to stop working with them. As a freelancer, it’s hard to find this kind of group to work with and I won’t let go.
So what’s the release schedule for “Borrowed Time?”
It depends on what Joe can do and what he wants to do. The first book has been grueling and the plan has been to do two per year, but we’ll see if that comes to pass. I can’t really predict it right now. Keep your fingers crossed.
So, we’re going to see the first volume of “Borrowed Time” in May. What else can we look forward to from you in the near future?
I have an eight-page story in an anthology coming out from Image. I can’t say much, but it’s going to be real good [laughs]. I’m doing a feature screenplay with a group of guys called “Tomorrow’s Brightest Minds.” The second issue of “Borrowed Time” should come out at the end of the year. I’m working on trying to put together a pitch for a reality show. The plate’s full right now. And we just launched the official web site.