As one of the primary collaborators on “Prophet,” artist Simon Roy has created hordes of weirdo aliens in his wild world-building of the far-future Extreme universe. His interest in speculative zoology — the potential evolutionary processes of alien life forms — is part of what makes “Prophet” one of the freshest sci-fi books on shelves. But with the Image Comics release of “Jan’s Atomic Heart and Other Stories” in March, Roy stands alone in the spotlight, showing off his personal evolution as a storyteller.
The collection is headlined by “Jan’s Atomic Heart,” Roy’s impressive, previously out-of-print 2008 debut. The twisty, lo-fi, sci-fi tale begins with a man in far-future Frankfurt mysteriously uploaded into a junky robot shell, before things take multiple turns for the worse.
The rest of the collected stories show a progression over the last five years for Roy, spanning seven stories, as he creates new worlds while playing in different genres. There are lots of awesome and bizarre aliens featured within, but there are also cosmonauts, talking birds, a buddy-cop friendship between two species, an intergalactic bar fight, and a heartbreaking deserted island story between a man and a gorilla.
Roy spoke to CBR News, reflecting on “Jan’s Atomic Heart” half a decade after its debut, as well as outlining his creature-creating process, the final phase of “Prophet” and more.
CBR News: This collection is being released near the five-year anniversary of the first printing of “Jan’s Atomic Heart.” What was your headspace like when you were first creating “Jan’s,” and what do you think looking back on it five years later?
Simon Roy: I made “Jan’s Atomic Heart” during my first year at ACAD [Alberta College of Art and Design], and I remember being in a kind of weird, transitional space — in a new city, away from friends and family for the first time, that kind of thing. Looking back, making “Jan’s” was probably in part a reaction to that, somewhere between art therapy and self-expression. There’s a bit of that in all of these stories, I think.Â
Oddly enough, I’m kind of back in a similar space now, a year and a bit into the fulltime freelance game, still casting a surly, dissatisfied eye over comics and scheming ways to make more stories I’d like to read.Â
What kind of comics do you think the current market needs? Or what comics would you like to read more of?
Well, I don’t read enough monthly comics to start making sweeping statements about what’s needed or what’s not needed. But the thing that I’m most interested in is trying to capture the idea-rich kind of smart science fiction that I look for in prose and translating that into my own comics work.
I’m a huge fan of writers like Jack Vance, Ursula K. Le Guin and Charles Stross, all of whom take a deeper, more holistic approach to world-building and storytelling; where the world intimately informs how the characters think and react. It feels like there’s a little too much of writers just tossing well-used tropes into first-draft premises, instead of getting into the more sociological and anthropological consequences of said premises (in most mediums, comics included). But this is coming from someone who loves to think about evolutionary processes and lines of causality, so my tastes might swing a bit far in that direction.
Can you talk me through the timeline for the other stories included in this collection?
All the stories in this book — even “Hunter Killer,” which I only finished this year — were written before I started working on “Prophet” in 2011. They’re arranged in the book in chronological order of completion, but their actual genesis is a bit more complicated. It starts with “The Cosmonauts” (made in 2008 while I was studying Russian at the University of Victoria), followed by “Jan’s Atomic Heart”. “Good Business” and the rough draft of “Shipwrecked with Dan the Gorilla” were drawn in late 2009, with “Bar Fight” and the rough draft of “Hunter Killer” drawn in 2010 and “Homeward Bound” drawn in 2011.
It’s all a bit muddled up, with stories getting changed and re-drawn years after I first started them, but they still show a progression of sorts, I think.Â
Aside from the unique collaboration you guys have on “Prophet,” you’ve also worked with writers Ed Brisson and David Gaffney. But “Jan’s Atomic Heart and Other Stories” is all you. Is that more creatively satisfying, or do you feed equally on collaboration too?
It all depends on the balance of input and control you have in a given project. Â Collaboration, for me, is always an easier process, since you’ve got other people carrying a lot of the weight. Oddly enough, I’d say that in some ways working from someone else’s script is a lot more freeing than more intimately collaborative work, because the relationship is more clearly defined. You’re reprocessing someone else’s vision and making it your own, but there’s a bit more distance between yourself and the work that I find more relaxing. If you’re more involved with the scripting, you get to have more input, but there’s a bit more compromise and struggle.
Of course, solo work is more satisfying when you actually achieve the vision you’ve been trying to wrestle onto the paper. Getting to that vision is much harder, since the weight of it all rests on you alone.
That being said, I’m lucky enough to have people I respect and trust to talk story with, so it’s not an entirely isolated process.Â
For a short story, the world-building in “Jan’s” is pretty dense. Do you have any interest in revisiting this world? Whether it’d be seeing the war on Luna, or even playing further with the idea of people being uploaded into these robot body prosthetics?
I think that if I revisit the world of “Jan’s,” it will be less about fleshing out that particular world and more about exploring the themes that come with the whole ‘prosthetic body’ premise; the disconnect between the body and the self, self-isolation, things like that. Plus, there’s lots of interesting stuff that could arise in the space between the individuals living in these artificial bodies and the wider society they exist in that tie directly into those ideas of disconnection.
In our last interview, you talked about your interest in “speculative zoology” and weirdo creature designs, something that obviously shines through in this collection and in “Prophet.” When designing creatures, do you start with the story first and design something that fits?
It depends, from story to story. In “Prophet,” lots of the creatures I throw in there are either pulled from earlier issues or improvised on the page when I’m penciling. I’ve got a deep mental reservoir of weird anatomy and body plans to pull from, and a wide range of amazing artists to look to for inspiration, from Wayne Barlowe to my friend C.M. Kosemen. But the creatures in this collection all come from thought-experiments on non-humanoid intelligent creatures. For example, in “Hunter Killer,” the creature design comes from the idea of taking an insect body-plan and applying those biomechanics to a creature with an internal skeleton instead of an exoskeleton. The design happened to fit perfectly with the story germ “Hunter Killer” grew from, too: What would the relationship between a soldier and her horse be like if the horse was in charge of its own work contract?
The creatures from “Good Business” came from a line of thought that started after I saw “District 9.” Why would the evolutionary lineage of a life-form isolated by eons and light-years from Earth end up evolving into the same bipedal body plan as us? What else could a giant self-aware crustacean use to manipulate the world around it if hands are out of the picture? I know there are very valid storytelling and marketing reasons to have your non-human characters humanoid and relatable, but it’s a lot more boring when your fictional universe is just populated by people with prosthetic foreheads.
How many issues of “Prophet” do you have left to draw, and what’s your involvement with the final “Prophet: Earth War” storyline?
Not many! Aside from #44, which is already done, I’ve only got a handful of pages to draw from #45 and some more fun, crazier stuff for the upcoming “Strikefile” issues.Â
With “Earth War,” I’ll be working with Brandon [Graham] on the writing stuff; overall plotting, some layouts, maybe the odd character design. It’s kind of nice to be backing away from the heavy lifting of drawing “Prophet,” and getting to see where this next crew of artists will take it.Â
You have “The Field,” a crime tale, coming out with Ed Brisson soon, but when can we expect more sci-fi from you?
Hopefully soon! Aside from some very slow-moving personal projects I’ve been drawing in my spare time, I’ve been looking more at focusing on just the writing aspect of things.Â
In that vein, I’ve been tentatively working on a story with Matt Sheean, who (along with his frequent creative partner Malachi Ward) has been contributing some amazing pages to “Prophet” these past issues.Â We’re still pretty early in the process, but the stuff we’ve already been working on has gotten me pretty excited. There’s nothing quite like the experience of bringing ideas that I’ve been struggling to visualize to Matt, then seeing the wonderful, strange directions his mind goes with them.
“Jan’s Atomic Heart and Other Stories” arrives in stores March 26.