Big Brother Invades San Francisco in Garcia's "City: The Mind in the Machine"

Darby Pop Publishing and IDW Publishing continue their budding partnership in February with the ongoing series "City: The Mind in the Machine" (originally solicited as a 4-issue miniseries). Created by "Matchstick Men" writer Eric Garcia and artist Javier Hernandez, the story in "City" follows a young man who finds himself suddenly in control of a massive surveillance system designed to watch over and protect the citizens of San Francisco.

As the second part of our look at Darby Pop's inaugural publishing slate -- we spoke with co-founders Jeff Kline and David Wohl here -- Garcia discussed "City" with CBR News, revealing how his story pre-dates the current NSA spying allegations, why he set it his tale in San Francisco, his hopes for "City" in other media and more.

CBR News: Eric, what's the story behind "City: The Mind in the Machine?"

Eric Garcia: I'll give you the short version, partially to save everyone valuable time, and partially because the long version would be the comic itself, and where's the fun in that? In short, "City" is about a developer/engineer named Ben who's helped to create an AI-like security watchdog called Golden Shield -- a networked surveillance system that's meant to both keep tabs on and control crime and terror throughout San Francisco. Unfortunately, as we learn quite early in the story, there's a flaw in the system: Without some sort of human intuition to at least guide the process, Golden Shield isn't sufficiently advanced to make the kinds of mental leaps and assumptions necessary for the job. Fortunately (for the story, not for Ben), something happens that results in Ben's connection to the Golden Shield system itself, and he effectively becomes both a human master of this system and an intrinsic part of it at the same time. To give away too much more wouldn't be fair, but suffice to say, there's a bit of a learning curve involved, and things get intense.

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Has this story been influenced by the NSA spying revelations rocking the headlines this past year?

Funny thing -- while the NSA news has most certainly influenced "City" as we've been putting it together, the impetus for the project came about long before any of the recent NSA activities were made public knowledge. That being said, it's not like I was blissfully ignorant of our espionage agencies and their tactics. And while I'm no conspiracy theorist/black-helicopter-spotter, it's been pretty clear for quite some time that the American government uses its powers to spy on its own citizens. But "City" is actually more concerned with the ability of corporate entities to spy on private citizens, and the questions about corporations acting in concert with military and Homeland operations. It's all tied up together, of course, and those knots are only getting tighter with every passing day. So when Ben, as City, starts to explore the limits of his power, and finds he's able to access so much more than he ever thought possible (or legal!), it's an exploration of what the private sector can do when given a nod and wink by the powers-that-be.

Why did you choose San Francisco as the comic's setting? As a city, it's very much at the forefront of technology trends --

Pretty much asked and answered, right there! The Bay Area in general is obviously at the vanguard of tech, and while I played around with putting "City" in both New York and Los Angeles (and, at one point, my hometown of Miami), it just felt right to put it in San Francisco. It also helps that, for the most part, SF is a contained town. Surrounded by water on three sides, divided into so many different districts -- seems like it'd be the perfect place to test out a system like Golden Shield, especially considering the technology needed for it would originate nearby.

In a way, Ben and Owen (who heads up the Golden Shield team) are testing it on the city they live in and love -- and if you asked Owen, he'd probably compare himself to Jonas Salk testing the polio vaccine on himself and his family before the rest of the world. Doesn't mean Owen's making a fair comparison -- but I have a feeling he thinks of himself in those terms.

Why did you decide to tell this story in a comic book instead of a novel or screenplay?

I've got a weird internal process I go through when figuring out which stories of mine get turned into specific media. Sometimes I'll have an idea that cries out to be a novel, and sometimes I feel like it's got to be a film or TV show. "City" is a bit of a tweener, in that there are many internal concepts -- what is it like to be part of a networked system? What does it meant to become a City? Those are the kinds of things I love exploring in prose. And yet, there's a very visual component as well. While I certainly could have put that in a novel, those were the elements that were crying out to be a film or TV series. It wasn't until a conversation with Jeff Kline (founder of Darby Pop) that we realized "City" could accomplish both goals via graphic novel. I'm a big fan of the format in general, but especially for stories that have both deeply internal and yet visual stories to tell, like Layman/Guillory's "Chew" series, which I adore, or Josh Fialkov's awesome standalone "Echoes". I thought "City" might best accomplish its goals in graphic novel form.

Do you hope to extend "City" into other mediums in the future?

The idea of doing a "City" film or TV series is certainly something that's crossed my mind -- it's quite visual, and, in the hands of the right director/studio could be a franchise (oooh, they love that word!) -- and naturally, I think it'd make a smashing video game as well.

All that said, I've not been thinking of it like that, as it's a different medium. Right now, I'm putting all my focus on making sure the graphic novel comes out exactly as we want it. It's something we actually have control over, which is an incredibly rare thing in this day and age -- and certainly something that very, very few writers ever have in the film/TV world. Jeff and Darby Pop have been amazing in terms of keeping me involved in every step of the process, and I'm incredibly grateful for that -- it's really taught me so much. At this point in time, I enjoy being able to make decisions that are best for "City's" creative life, as opposed to trying to serve multiple masters with different agendas, as one usually needs to in film and TV.

What does artist Javier Fernandez bring to "City?"

In short: A visual palette and range that I couldn't even imagine. My brain simply doesn't work the way his does, and it's been incredible to watch the story come to life on the page -- which of course only brings it to life even more in my mind. It's not that different from working with a director and actors and watching as they infuse new life into the words you've written. [It's] both thrilling and frightening, because in a sense. you're giving up a certain amount of control. But if you're in the right hands (as we most certainly are with Javier) then it's like being on a rollercoaster. You can sit back, scream with glee and enjoy the ride.

What's your writing process like for "City" versus a screenplay or novel?

Not all that different from how it is for a regular novel, really. I wait until I've got a good concept of what I want to do, how I want to attack it, and then I give it a rough outline -- essentially a proof-of-concept. Will this idea hold up? Will the story have enough weight? Do the characters make sense in terms of their motivations and desires? From there, I have to start writing, because nothing really comes to life until I start giving the characters dialogue and action and interaction. A good 80% of what I write gets rewritten and rewritten again (and again) (and again), and eventually, it's ready to show to my collaborators -- at which point they mercifully rip it to (constructive) shreds and I start the new rewrites in earnest. Oddly, I greatly enjoy this. I know -- I'm a weirdo.

From "Matchstick Men" to "Repossession Mambo" to "City," it seems that paranoia, the idea that something is coming to get you or watching you or tricking you, is a recurring theme in your work. Are you a paranoid person in real life?

Well, before you asked, I would have said, "No, I'm not a particularly paranoid person," but now that you're using my CV against me --

I would say that I'm a somewhat anxious person, and in a way that's certainly tied in with paranoia. My anxiety, though, probably ties more into the other themes that someone else once brought up in my work -- the question of change, and whether true change is ever possible, especially if forced. "Matchstick" is about a leopard trying to change his spots -- and at the end (of the book, at least) there's a question as to whether the lesson he's learned is going to stick. "Repossession Mambo" is certainly all about change and replacement -- but in the ways that the physical can both imitate and cause the mental/emotional. In "City," we've got Ben, who's somewhat shy and retiring, but is forced, through outside influences, to take on the responsibilities, and eventually the personality, of an entire town -- so will that change him? Will that turn him into something bigger/better/worse or just plain different from who he was?

What's next for you after "City?"

Well, first up we're continuing "City" beyond its initial four-issue run, and I'm thrilled to be involved with that. Since I've really enjoyed my graphic novel experience so far, I've been talking about a second title as well -- a story that, come to think of it, does touch once again on the notion of both anxiety/paranoia and change. Maybe I need to see a therapist about these issues. Hm. On the novel front, I'm working on a new book and keep edging closer to "done" -- but there's still much work to do on that before it sees the light of day. I'm writing a couple of pilots for different TV channels/networks, and working on a few different films. At any one time I'm usually juggling 6-7 things, across different media, but that's either because of a raging undiagnosed ADHD, or just because I like the things I like when I like them and dammit, I don't want to have to give any of them up. Sleep is highly overrated, anyway.

"City: The Mind in the Machine" #1 is available this February from Darby Pop and IDW Publishing.

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