It’s been nearly a decade since Simon Oliver launched “The Exterminators” for Vertigo Comics. And like the insect-infected world featured in his debut hit, illustrated and co-created by Tony Moore of “The Walking Dead” fame, the one he’s building with artist Robbi Rodriquez in “FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics” is heading towards a mass extermination. Except in his latest creator-owned series for Vertigo, a far more powerful menace lurks in the shadows — and that menace is physics.
“FBP” follows a team of investigators working for the Federal Bureau of Physics as the physical world begins to unravel thanks to quantum tornadoes, bubbleverses and a new brand of science that would have left the Beastie Boys needing to expand their horizons and parameters far beyond what they previously believed possible.
In seven issues to date, Oliver and Rodriguez have delivered a mystery literally spiraling out of control and one that is based, at least in part, on real science. Not bad for a kid that used to get reports card stating: “He does okay but he could do better.”
With the series going on a one-month hiatus to coincide with the release of its first collected edition on February 19, CBR News connected with Oliver to discuss the real-life scenario that appears to mirror the events of “FBP,” why knowing what wormholes and time dilation is may make the series even more enjoyable and how long the writer believes the series will run.
CBR News: As a young boy growing up in the UK, did you dream of superheroes or science?
Simon Oliver: I didn’t really read many superhero comics growing up. I found them a little later on. But yes, I guess I have always been interested in science. And the last few years, I’ve become really interested in science. I read a lot of non-fiction and I’ve really thrown myself into it since I started the book as I’ve been doing research for it. Science is like a black hole. It kind of sucks you in. Once you start getting a handle on it, it’s like learning another language. A little bit leads to a little bit more and suddenly you find yourself immersed in it.
I spoke with physicist Kip Thorne over the holidays and he said that he likes science fantasy like “Star Wars” and “Dune,” but he really likes science fiction, which is based in fact, like “Contact” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” He says if the science, at the core, isn’t believable, the story doesn’t work. It sounds like you’re on the same page as Dr. Thorne because if you’re going to write about it, you need to know the difference between a black hole and a worm hole.
I think it definitely helps. I’ve read a lot and I’ve watched a lot of documentaries. And I’ve tried to get my head around a lot of the big concepts that are going on now and use that as a basis to build on. I’d never go so far as to say that everything in “FBP” was scientifically accurate but my aim, at least with the concepts in the book, is to have it somewhat grounded in reality — and hopefully to raise some interesting points.
The arc that I’m writing now, which ends in “FBP” #13, is all to do with reality and how we perceive reality and a lot of that is based in some concepts that people have come up with but of course, because it’s fiction, you have to go a couple of steps further to make it a compelling story.
And I loved how you explained a concept like ‘time dilation’ though dialogue by giving the example of atomic clocks on an airplane moving faster than those grounded on Earth. It allows the books to work on two levels — for the geeks and the supergeeks.
And the aim is to make the book work on those two levels where you can read it and enjoy the story but if you know a little bit of science and you’re kind of interested in those things, it’s interesting on that level too. It’s “The Simpsons” approach to writing. Your kids can watch it. They may not laugh at all of the jokes, but the references that they don’t get, you’re laughing at.
What’s the secret origin of “FBP,” meaning how did you arrive at the high concept?
I initially came up with the concept that we’re living in a world where physics started to go wrong. It was a big deal and big front page news when it started to happen but like we are as human beings, the human condition, we get used to things and we just incorporate things into our daily lives and get on with it. There are all kinds of examples throughout history in how the world has changed, chaos reigns for a few months and then things kind of settle back. We, as people, get back to earning a living, working on getting food and shelter and watching bad TV soap operas or whatever else we do. That was the starting point.
Other people have done similar things. And there have been TV shows that have dabbled in the same kind of concept but I think the one decision that we made at the beginning of the book, which will hopefully set us apart a little bit, was that this phenomena was not a secret. It’s not an undercover thing like “Men in Black.” If someone sees a gravity failure, you don’t have to wipe their memory afterwards. I really wanted to make it part and parcel of our world so it became a logical extension that there would be an agency created to deal with these physics problems. Not too long after it, we got the FBP — the Federal Bureau of Physics.
In the first arc, government legislates to privatize the handling of physics problems and FBP undergoes some pretty major cuts and is forced to operate quite differently. You basically create a two-tier system, which is not unlike the health care system in the United States. Are you also making a political statement about government spending or lack thereof?
I guess a little bit. I didn’t want to go too far into making it a political analogy but I thought it would be an interesting real world situation that could and would happen. The government has picked up the mantle of handling physics and keeping it under control but at some point, private interests would start to kick in, as well. I thought that would be an interesting thing to tackle in the first arc and set up.
In the first issue, we meet a scientist named Eli Hardy who is leaving a message for his son. The son grows up to become the protagonist of your series, Adam Hardy, as quantum tornados approach where he is studying. In the series, do you have plans to go back and explore what caused these initial quantum tornados and fissures in the fabric of reality? Or does it not matter?
We’re working toward a point in the book where that whole thing will come to a head, which is the next arc that I’m going to be working on. We’re definitely pushing toward getting some answers and some boxes ticked off, in terms of the questions that we’ve asked in the first arc. I don’t want to be in that situation of raising questions and never answering them.
While I’m loving the story and the scientific concepts that you’re exploring like time dilation and worm holes, I’m also digging the characters you’ve introduced and their interplay, particularly the relationship between Adam and Cicero. It’s a classic duo in that Adam is street smart and Cicero is book smart but why does the combination work for you?
The characters really came alive when Robbi [Rodriguez] got involved and started to draw them. I love the way that he draws Cicero with the crazy hair. In one of the issues that I’ve just written, there are constant, running jokes about his hair.
And I also like the new character Rosa Reyes, who was introduced at the end of “FBP” #5. And she basically has an arc of her own in “FBP” #6 and #7. She’s a great character. She immediately popped off the page for me. She’s a really fun character to write because she’s so strange and removed from any kind of normalcy really. She’s borderline Asperger’s but she’s not really, which was a really interesting thing to convey in a comic book — without going over the top and without using too much voiceover narration to get through it. It was a really interesting challenge. I didn’t want to make a joke out of it but I wanted to explore how can someone be that detached from these kinds of work situations?
And the next arc really has a lot about the relationship between Adam and Rosa.
As for Adam, it’s like school reports, which I used to get written a lot on mine, “He does okay but he could do better.” That’s definitely the way to sum him up at the beginning and that’s why Cicero is frustrated with him. It’s like, “You need to do better. You need to focus your energy on this.” That’s what the first four or five issues were about. He needs to focus a little bit more and figure what’s important in his life. We’re seeing him turn from that slacker, who meets the girl and goes off with her and not showing up to work on time to someone that actually takes his work a little bit more seriously. At the same time, he’s not losing his edge and his sense of humor.
And certainly by the end of the first arc, it looks like he’s also going to be learning a lot more about his father and the mysterious Lance Blackwood.
We’re definitely working toward that. There’s a bunch of that in the arc and arcs that are coming up.
Can you tell us anything else about Mr. Blackwood, who we know was there when Adam’s Uncle was cleaning up Eli Hardy’s things — including his research — after he died?
He’s definitely the bad guy and he’s definitely on the side of wrong at the moment but I think later on that things might be shifting. There may be bigger fish to fry so there may be some unexpected alliances coming up.
Have we seen the last of Agent Jay Kelly, Adam’s old partner at FBP who turned to the dark side during the opening arc and was left behind in a Bubbleverse?
We’ve kind of left that up in the air whether he’s going to come back in or not. I’m not sure. I’m still not sure whether or not I want to bring him back in the mix. I think it would be cool but it might happen somewhere down the line.
And the other character I’m interested in seeing more of is the man who was working with Jay, who I don’t believe has a name — at least it hasn’t been revealed in “FBP” — but he looks a lot like Mark Twain.
You can’t draw a moustache like that and not bring him back. [Laughs]
And we don’t know his name, correct?
His name is Mr. Hemmings.
The book’s taking a one-month hiatus so readers can catch up with the trade. Can you give us a tease of what’s to come beyond an exploration of the relationship between Adam and Rosa?
When it comes back in March, we have an arc where Adam, Rosa and Cicero are packed off to Alaska to help shut down an FBP facility there. An old friend of Cicero is in charge and the reason Cicero signed them on for this duty and has taken them up to Alaska is that there is an experiment being set up there to do with reality. And Adam and Rosa go off and have an adventure in a parallel, quantum reality.
Makes sense. I always hate to ask this question on a new series but do you know how or when it ends?
They’ve signed me up for another 12 issues so I’m planning on answering a bunch of questions by the end of 24 issues and then take it from there. If they want me to keep on writing the book, I’m happy to keep writing it. It’s a really fun book to write.
You mentioned earlier the artist on “FBP,” Robbi Rodriguez. Can you talk a bit more about what he brings to project?
He’s really done a great job. And Rico [Renzi] is doing some amazing stuff on coloring the book. And Nathan [Fox]’s covers are spectacular. The book is getting a lot of attention because of the covers. When I started doing the book, I was writing very, very tight strips as I’ve done in the past and over the first arc I started loosening up the script and really giving Robbi more and more opportunity to do what he does best, which is visualize these things because it’s really hard to draw some of these things. It’s like, “Okay, we’re going to have a Bubbleverse next issue. It’s a different world so I want it to look different but kind of the same…” [Laughs] We aimed pretty high with the art for the first arc and I think he really delivered. We wouldn’t be where we are now if the artists weren’t delivering where they’ve been delivering.
The collected edition of the first arc of “FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics” is scheduled for release on February 19. “FBP” #8 goes on sale March 12.