Given the option, would you rather serve a hefty prison sentence, or retain some of your freedom by joining the military? The question has been asked of many people throughout the ages, but in Ed Brisson's February-debuting "Cluster," it's posed to criminals who might find themselves fighting alien menaces across the galaxy.
The series, drawn by Brisson's "Murder Book" and "Sons of Anarchy" collaborator Damian Couceiro, focuses on a group of cons who chose to retain some level of autonomy, only to discover that imprisonment might not have been such a bad deal after all. The book's lead, Samara, wants to pay for her lawbreaking, but discovers that her punishment on Midlothian might not fit the crime when she and her crew get cut off from all support while on a planet filled with enemies.
Brisson began his comics career as a letterer, but has moved over into the realm of writing in the past few years with a variety of projects including "Murder Book," "Sheltered" and "Sons of Anarchy." We spoke with him about his latest new project, his progressing artistic relationship with Couceiro and the historical inspiration for the BOOM! Studios sci-fi series.
CBR News: "Cluster" sounds kind of like "The Dirty Dozen" in space. Did the thought to combine those elements come first or did characters or plot points start the idea fires burning?
Ed Brisson: It actually all started with a scene -- something that didn't even make it into the final version -- and started to spin out from there. The idea of prisoners being used in a galactic military force is something that was borne out of the idea of the U.S. conscripting prisoners for Vietnam. Well, more accurately, giving convicted felons the choice between serving time or serving a tour of duty overseas. From there, the idea just started to blossom.
I've never seen "The Dirty Dozen," but you're the second person to mention it. I really need to watch it. It's an embarrassing gap for a guy who considers himself a huge film fan.
What can you tell us about the cast of criminals-turned-soldiers starring in the book? Who are they, and what are they serving time for?
I don't want to give away too much, but will say that a lot of the people serving time have bogus sentences. In the story, you can trade your life sentence in for a tour of duty -- get out in 15 years. But, what constitutes a life sentence? In a future where both the military and prison system are privatized, where they feed into one another, is anyone going to get a fair shake?
Our lead character in the book, Samara, is someone who could have avoided being there. Her father is in a position where he may have been able to prevent her from spending time in prison, let alone serving 15 years fighting aliens on a distant planet. However, she's there because she has a desire to pay penance for what she's done, something that we don't quite learn until much later on.Â
"Cluster" sounds like it deals with the ramifications of a society expanding in some ways without being able to keep up in others. Is that a theme you wanted to play with?
Yeah. It has a bit of a double meaning here. It does deal with overpopulation and the ramifications of that. It's also, simply, that Midlothian -- the planet on which the series takes place -- is within a Cluster of other planets, which will play an important part in future arcs.
You mentioned how the idea went back to the Vietnam war, but were there more modern realities influencing the story as well?
Yeah, absolutely. As mentioned, it has its roots in the idea of the military trading prison terms for tours of duty during Vietnam, but is also something that feeds into increased privatization of public institutions, such as the military and prison systems. If you look at the prison systems in the US today and how they're run, it's an embarrassment.Â
You've worked with Damian Couceiro on "Murder Book" and "Sons of Anarchy" and now "Cluster." What did you see in that earlier collaboration that made you think of re-teaming on this project?
Not many people know this, but Damian is the first artist that I worked on pitch projects with. He and I had a book that we pitched nearly 10 years ago now. It was a superhero/crime thing that did get picked up by a smaller publisher, but for one reason or another never came out. We managed to get three of four issues done before it fell apart. Still have those kicking around on my hard drive, somewhere.
He's always been a guy that I wanted to work on a larger project with, and a big reason I came onto "Sons of Anarchy" -- aside from being a fan of the show -- was so that I could work with him again. He's an artist that I'm surprised isn't a household name. He's just so goddamned good.
When I was first thinking of "Cluster," when the ideas started to congeal and become a story, I was thinking about possible artists, and Damian was at the top of the list. I knew he was working on "Sons" -- this was before I was on it -- and wasn't sure if it would be cool to talk to them about working on a creator-owned with him. This was late 2013 and I'd already been talking to BOOM! for a bit at that point about doing a creator-owned book with them.
I shit you not, about 30 minutes after thinking about how I could approach BOOM! and Damian about this, I get an email from Eric Harburn asking if I'd be interested in working with Damian on a creator-owned book, and if so, was there a project that I had in mind. Now, I'm an atheist, but hot damn if that didn't feel like a bit of divination right there.Â
How has your working relationship evolved since you started collaborating?
I think that we've had a pretty steady working relationship that hasn't changed a whole lot since we started 10 years ago. I try not to overburden Damian with details on design and like to leave much of that to him. If it's a collaborative book, I prefer that the artist handle those details. I imagine that working on a comic where the writer nitpicks all the design elements can't be much fun for an artist. I want the book to feel like a Damian Couceiro book just as much as it does an Ed Brisson book, and I think that we're able to keep that balance quite nicely.
You've done a variety of creator-owned books with different companies. Aside from them coming to you and asking you to pitch a book to do with Damian, what made BOOM! the right place for "Cluster?"
I've been talking to them for a while about doing creator-owned work. The difference, and something I appreciate, is that they came in early, practically at the inception of the idea, and helped to develop it up. This was never something that was first developed and then pitched around, hoping someone would pick it up, this was always a BOOM! book -- and that's a good thing. I like that. I like having input, being able to bounce ideas off editors.
Plus, BOOM! has a lot of exciting creator-owned stuff going on at the moment, a lot of which is being worked on by good friends -- "Dead Letters" with Chris Sebela; "Black Market" with Frank Barbiere, "Burning Fields" with Mike Moreci, Tim Daniel, Colin Lorimer and Riley Rossmo; "Curb Stomp" with Ryan Ferrier; "Deep State" with Justin Jordan; and a couple others not yet announced -- these are all good friends of mine. Folks I talk to often and hang out with at cons. So it feels, in a lot of ways, like a clubhouse.
Ed Brisson, Damian Couceiro and BOOM! Studios debut "Cluster" #1 on Feb. 4.