Later this year, Radical Comics will revisit the realm of outer space with “Shrapnel: Hubris,” the highly anticipated sequel to the publisher’s premiere sci-fi epic, “Shrapnel: Aristeia Rising.” Following the uprising of an independence movement on the planet of Venus against an oppressive federation of planets, “Shrapnel” sets its sights clearly on the leader of the movement, Captain Samantha “Sam” Narayan, a natural born leader with a complicated and decorated military past. The events of “Aristeia Rising” introduced Sam and the galactic conflict that Venus soon became the center of, with an underlying racial conflict to boot. While the brilliant and efficient Sam had to overcome a number of obstacles and challenges to lead, the end of “Aristeia Rising” saw her and the Venusian freedom fighters emerging victorious in a critical battle against their oppressors, putting them in good shape for the war to come.
While “Aristeia Rising” was written by M. Zachary Sherman (“SOCOM: Seal Team Seven,” “Earp: Saints for Sinners”), “Shrapnel” co-creator and acclaimed novelist Nick Sagan, son of astronomer Carl Sagan, is taking over writing duties for “Hubris.” In addition to his work on the sci-fi novel series “Idlewild,” Sagan also has writing credits on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Star Trek” Voyager,” making him a natural choice for the sci-fi feel and tone of the series. CBR News had the pleasure to speak with Sagan about how “Hubris” continues the “Shrapnel” epic, his feelings on switching writers one-third of the way through the story and the trials that Samantha Narayan will face come “Hubris.”
CBR News: Nick, tell us a little bit about “Shrapnel: Hubris” and how it’s going to continue the epic you began telling in “Aristeia Rising.”
Nick Sagan: “Aristeia Rising” ended with the colonists having fought the Marines to a standstill – a tremendous feat! But in “Hubris,” they discover it’s a short lived victory. They’ve bought themselves some time, but they’re under siege and facing increasing deprivation. How long can they last? They have to surrender or find a way to turn the tables on those who’d control them, to strike back and put the Solar Alliance on defense. The hero of the war, Captain Narayan – “Sam” to her friends – has a strategy, and with the help of her former CO, Colonel Rossi, she pursues it, but at great risk to the colonists themselves and to the sanctity of their cause.
Sam’s obviously been through a lot since the first issue of “Shrapnel” – where will her journey take her during this second installment?
Well, physically, the journey will take her offworld and back to the planet of her birth, but if you’re talking about her emotional journey, Sam’s gone from hiding out on the sidelines to leading an army against the powers that be. Years ago those same powers not only trained her but popularized her as the first Helot (non-genetically enhanced) officer in the modern USMC, giving her a symbolic cultural value that she benefited from but was never entirely comfortable with. Now she’s increasingly seen as a force for Helot liberation. There’s a movement sweeping across the system that needs Sam at the head of it, but this enormous responsibility doesn’t come as naturally to her as soldiering. It’s difficult for her to have people kill and die not just for a good cause but in her name. She risks losing herself in the process, the complexities of war and strains of command eating away at her sense of who she is and replacing it with what the universe wants her to become.
What appeals to you most about the character of Sam and the surrounding story of “Shrapnel?”
I like the contrast of Sam’s outward toughness and drive for excellence with the inner self-scrutiny that can lapse into self-loathing when she makes choices that get troops under her command – or, perhaps even worse, innocents – -hurt or killed. Some people are born leaders but she struggles with the mantle of that responsibility. So much is expected of her but she’s wounded, suffering from PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder), and what she’s lived through isn’t put behind her so easily. In that respect, she can be her own worst enemy, and I find that makes her a really interesting character to write. I’m also enjoying how “Shrapnel” has the genetic have-nots increasingly at odds with the haves and each side demonizing the other. I’d like to think we might someday get past divisions in race, gender, religion, nationality and so on, but given human history it’s entirely possible that we’ll continue to struggle with one division or another even in the face of monumental technological achievements like colonizing other worlds. That future strikes a chord with me: it feels stark and uncomfortable and all-too-likely.
Previously, “Aristeia Rising” was written by M. Zachary Sherman. Now you’re taking the reins of the epic alongside series artist Clinnette Minnis. Although you’re a veteran writer, has the transition been at all difficult for you?
It’s been a very fun challenge. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve previously been able to work in a wide range of media and my experience there has helped me. Even so, the comic book/graphic novel format is in many ways a style unto itself, and I feel like I’ve been learning a new language or building up a different set of muscles. Pacing is so important, telling the story visually, keeping the action moving. I thought Zack did an outstanding job with “Aristeia Rising,” but going through the process firsthand now, I have an even greater appreciation for all the work he did. Radical has been very positive on everything Clinnette and I have been doing with “Hubris” – and the art is absolutely stunning – so I’m hopeful we’ve crafted a sequel that does right by the original and gets fans of the series psyched for the next and final chapter, “Shrapnel: Nemesis.”
What have been some of your personal challenges and goals in writing “Shrapnel: Hubris?”
[“Shrapnel” Co-Creator] Mark Long and Zack Sherman have firsthand personal experience in the military (Army and Marines, respectively), while Clinnette and I have never served. Zack set the authenticity bar very high (or as authentic as one can be when extrapolating a future military), so it’s been a personal goal to try to match that standard in scenes where military life comes into play. It’s also been a challenge trying to tell a nuanced story with neither the colonists nor the Solar Alliance completely on the side of the angels. There’s a complexity to that kind of storytelling which I spark to – I like stepping out of that comfort zone – but of course, not everyone will root for characters willing to bend their principles in service of what they see as the greater good. It’s a delicate balance that needs to be struck, and hopefully we’ve hit the target.
How is writing a comic book like “Shrapnel” different than your prose work on your novels in the “Idlewild” trilogy?
There’s more freedom in novels. You can spend pages and pages writing about anything you want, and as long as you’ve got the reader involved, it’s no problem. Comics are more like television in that you have specific lengths and structure that your writing must conform to – which only makes sense because of all the work that goes into design, inking, lettering, etc. You can’t turn in a 32 page story when it’s supposed to be 24. At the same time, having to hit a designated structure can be terrific creatively; it can force you to cut the fat from your verbiage and think carefully about how you want your story to unfold. And new though I am new to the format, I’m having a blast breaking the old “show, don’t tell” prohibition. Because when you’re describing the imagery in a panel to an artist, you’re straight up telling him what you want. It’s a great change of pace for me, and I love trying to hit the mark of giving an artist enough detail to make a given panel as vivid and fun as I see in my head without straitjacketing him and keeping him from cool, surprising visual choices he might otherwise make.
Has your experience writing sci-fi stories in both television and prose informed your work on Shrapnel?
I’ve been drawn to science fiction for a while now. I think it’s as an ideal genre for tackling the big questions we face as human beings. Who are we, where are we going, what’s it all about? What might happen next? Is it what we want? The questions are “chewy” enough to allow for many different explorations, so I think that’s what I’ve been playing with in my work beyond simply trying to tell an entertaining story. Within the science fiction genre and outside of it, writers typically learn something new from each project, and so I’d like to think that “Shrapnel” is better for my experience writing the “Idlewild” trilogy, writing for “Star Trek” and the various other creative projects I’ve been fortunate enough to immerse myself in. It’s a continual learning process – I’m sure my future work in the medium will be informed by my Shrapnel experience as I keep growing and trying new things.
In your opinion, how does your writing on “Shrapnel” differ from the work you’ve done in the past?
“Star Trek” has its share of combat on other worlds and in outer space but its ethos is more exploratory than militaristic. “Shrapnel” is inspired more by previous space marine epics, and that’s territory I’d not really tried my hand at before. I think in some ways it’s an inversion of my “Trek” work insofar as we boldly go into space but never leave the solar system, don’t encounter aliens, and are unable to put aside our human differences for the greater good. It’s also probably a little more nakedly violent than previous works. More explosions, more battle cries, more death rattles. All that good stuff.
What do you feel is the most rewarding aspect of working on a project like this?
It’s a thrill watching talented artists take a future you imagine in your mind’s eye and make it tangible on the page. It’s been great fun to work with friends in Mark, Zack, Clinnette and all the wonderful people at Radical; I’ve found it deeply rewarding to be able to, in a small way, give back to a medium that meant so much to me in my formative years and still does to this day.
Why do you feel comics are the most appropriate medium to tell the story of “Shrapnel?”
Though as a writer and reader I enjoy the invitation to visualize what’s happening in a story through words alone, “Shrapnel” just seemed to call for a more visceral brand of storytelling. And in a comic book, if you want a crazy battle on another planet with hundreds of space marines trading fire with colonists, you don’t have the headache of worrying about how many millions of dollars it’ll cost to produce. The only question is, “Can it be drawn?” If the answer’s yes, you’re gold.