Big Story, Little Screen: The Allen Bros. talk the PSP Comic "NYC2123"

Whenever a company releases some sort of new technology, there's a near immediate response to modify or hack it. Often this is a somewhat difficult task since so many companies insist on maintaining tight controls on their product. Other times, a particular device may be released with some level of openness, encouraging the community at large to create their own modifications, programs, etc., leading to a sense of community that can add dramatically to the success of the product. With the release of their Playstation Portable (aka, the PSP), Sony went for a semi-open tact, maintaining a limiting control over the system software's mod-ability, but allowing people the freedom to create some PSP friendly content without having to jump through hoops. Brothers Paco and Chad Allen used this openness to create and promote the first graphic novel for the PSP, "NYC2123." A cyberpunk story based in New York City of the future, it's being released in chapters on their website, and while it's completely optimized for viewing on your PSP, you can just as easily read it online with your browser if you don't own the gaming system. In keeping with the best online ideas, it's also Creative Commons licensed, which means it's perfectly fine for you to take their work, remix or rewrite it yourself and post it online as long as you give the Allen brothers credit and don't make money off of it. We caught up with Paco & Chad to learn more about "NYC2123" and their approach to digital comics.

CBR: Which came first - the PSP or your desire to create a comic book?

Chad: We've talked about doing a comic book or graphic novel together for a while. But we both have real jobs, so finding the time to do something on any significant scale was difficult, and we just never really got around to it. So I guess I would say that when the PSP came along it was kind of a catalyst. Paco got one and starting looking around for content, but he didn't find much. We were both pretty excited about the possibility of creating content for a new medium that had yet to be fully explored, and I think that really provided the motivation to finally get working on something.

CBR: What made you choose the PSP as your main means of presentation rather than simply creating a webcomic or self-publishing a printed version of your story with a PSP formatted version as a secondary rather than primary goal?

Chad: I think a big part of it was just our curiosity to see what we could come up with for this new format. We weren't that interested in self-publishing a printed version because book distribution is still very much a top-down enterprise. If you don't get a distribution deal, you don't get on bookstore shelves, and nobody reads your book. It's hard to say for sure what our readership is to date because other sites are now hosting copies of the files online, but I'd say that at least 7,500 people read Issue 1 within the first two weeks of its publication. There's no way we could have attained that kind of readership with a self-published, printed book. Of course, we're not making any money by giving away the content over the web, but that's not why we're doing this anyway.

Paco: A huge part of getting readership is about how people interact with content. If you don't have a major distribution deal and marketing dollars behind your effort, you need to find a small, but passionate audience that wants content more desperately than the guys standing around in comics shops do. The PSP has the perfect demographic for this kind of content. It's really been a case of good timing.

CBR: Do you have plans to eventually collect NYC2123 into a printed graphic novel? Would you be remixing it as far as layout and art goes if you do take it to press?

Chad: We don't currently have any plans to create a print version of NYC2123. If a publisher approached us about doing a print version, that would be awesome. But I don't think that will happen, and I don't see us self-funding a print publication.

To answer the second part of the question, if this ever did go to press, then yes, I think we would want to take that opportunity to re-work the layout to fit that medium. The current version is obviously very specific to the PSP format and I don't think it would translate well to the printed page without some serious remixing.

Paco: Serious remixing. I'd almost want to start from scratch to avoid forcing a very PSP specific design approach into a printed format.

CBR: You currently have raw source files available for remixing and mash-ups. Do you plan to host some of them yourself, or will you just be happy to allow them to thrive in the wild?

Chad: We're fine with either. Currently there is a German translation that is hosted by someone else and that's great. We'd also be happy to host translations and remixes as long as we can afford the bandwidth.

Paco: Hopefully this will get big enough that we can't keep track of it all. It feels like its getting close to that point already. But we'll always try to post fan-created works, link to translations, etc.

CBR: Talk about the creative side of things a bit. How do you work together to create the finished product? Does Chad write it and hand it off to Paco, or is it a more collaborative process?

Chad: It's pretty collaborative. I write the story in a sort of modified-screenplay style, where I try to break things up into chunks that will fit in a single frame. Usually I write too much, so we go back through the script together and identify places where stuff needs to be edited down. And once Paco has seen the initial draft for an issue he usually has lots of good ideas for how to fill in gaps, add cool plot elements and so forth. He's in San Francisco and I'm in New York, so all of this happens by e-mail, phone and instant messaging.

Paco: Which means a lot of scanning for me. Once the story is fairly locked-down I'll do storyboards and design sketches for characters, vehicles, locations, etc and scan them to send to Chad. We'll review the work, make tweaks to the story and then I'll start shooting photographs. All of the character illustrations are based on real people, which means I need to cast everyone and then take photographs. These are combined with location photography and hand-drawn sketches and then used as the basis for the final digital illustration.

CBR: Cyberpunk and future apocalypse stories are two sci-fi concepts that you've combined to create the world of NYC2123. Are there any particular authors or stories that inspired you to write your story?

Chad: For the most part, the influences are the obvious ones. Gibson is obviously a huge source for everything in the cyberpunk genre, since he basically invented it. Stephenson is another pretty obvious influence. Actually, I'd say it's probably generous of me to say that these guys are influences. It might be more accurate to say that I'm just ripping them off, and trying to add in few original ideas where I can. Films like "Blade Runner," "THX 1138" and "Mad Max" also come to mind. A lot of people have alleged a similarity to "Escape From New York," though frankly I don't see much in common other than the fact that both stories take place in Manhattan. But it would be cool if Kurt Russell were in the film version of "NYC2123."

Paco: We were raised on a healthy mix of PBS and science fiction. My dad watched everything from "Dr. Who" to "Silent Running" to "Alien," "Star Wars," "Star Trek," you name it. He also passed down a lot of books to Chad and I: the "DUNE" series, "Ringworld," Asimov. Later in life I started reading quite a bit of Philip K. Dick, Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange"-- things that were a bit darker. I think this story is kind of a mash of a lot of different stories we've both enjoyed over the years.

CBR: Napster, Wal-Mart, Panasonic-- you use a lot of real brand names in "NYC2123," updating their products or functions to fit in with the future tech of the comic. Do you really feel that this is a possible direction these companies, and the world in general, is heading? Or is it just a future you've created to comment on their modern day practices and personas?

Chad: I think it's a bit of both. Take the Wal-Mart example. On the one hand, it wouldn't surprise me if 100 years from now Wal-Mart owned every corner store in the country, so I think it is a realistic extrapolation from present-day reality. On the other hand, it's obviously a jab at Wal-Mart and a comment on what I view as a trend towards the homogenization of our culture and the increasing prevalence of monopolies or cartels in certain parts of our economy. And don't worry, we haven't forgotten about Microsoft-- all of the good Windows send-ups come in Issue 3.

Paco: If you look at many of the major global industries today, there are only a handful of companies that control the market. This is immediately apparent when it comes to consumer goods (things like automobiles, computers, packaged food), but what is much more disturbing is that the same trend exists within industries that control information and communication. Media consolidation, prescription drug patents, the convergence of news and entertainment-- the direction we take on these issues today will have a major impact on how people live in the next few centuries.

CBR: Your website currently has the first issue available for downloading or online viewing, and placeholders for 5 more issues. Do you know how your story ends, or is this something that's just unfolding on it's own as you write and draw?

Chad: We're working from a pretty detailed outline, so we definitely know what happens in each issue and where the story ends up. Having said that, we are releasing these in "real time," or as we finish them, so there is definitely some fluidity to both the narrative and visual elements of the story. We're filling in details about dialogue, scenery, costumes, minor plot elements and so forth as we go along.

Paco: It's similar to how George Lucas works these days. Except our story gets better as we revise it.

Thanks to Augie De Blieck Jr. for his assistance with this interview. A previous version of this interview appeared earlier at Kung Fu Rodeo.

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