Announced today at the Chicago Comics & Entertainment Expo, Archaia and writers Daniel Quantz and R.J. Ryan will show readers what it means to be evil, literally, in their upcoming graphic novel “Syndrome.” Being released this August with art by David Marquez, the graphic novel explores the idea of scientifically explaining what causes evil. However, as any good scientist knows, a hypothesis is nothing without an experiment to prove it. As such, a conglomerate of individuals, each with their own agendas, begin a series of experiments on a remote compound with unsuspecting actors and a sadistic serial killer as the human guinea pigs.
CBR News spoke with the writing team about the upcoming graphic novel, their own research into the idea of evil and how writing Spider-Man prepared them for a book about murder.
CBR News: According to what we know, the graphic novel explores the cause of evil. Obviously, we can’t ask what that is, but how did you guys settle on the idea to explore such an age old question?
Daniel Quantz:Â Kind of backed into it, to be honest.Â The whole thing started with the idea to do a story about a serial killer and the doctor who’s attempting to treat him. But we wanted to get around the cliches of an idea like that and approach this in a new way, addressing the very real obstacles that psychiatrists have in treating the criminally insane. Turns out there is a huge amount of really groundbreaking research being done right now on the brain and its role in directing human behavior. Without getting into specifics, some of the recent discoveries suggest that we might be able to deal with and even cure people whom we might call “evil.” Nobody I’ve seen is talking about it in the terms we are in this book, of course, but it wasn’t a huge leap to think that one day we will.
So, OK, what if there was someone out there with the ambition and resources to take this research to an extreme level to find a “cure”?Â The benefit to society could be tremendous, but, of course, it would raise a whole mess of moral and ethical questions as well.
RJ Ryan:Â Daniel and I are both the products of reading hundreds and hundreds of comics in which good and evil battle. Guess which side wins ninety-eight percent of the time?Â We wanted to tell a story where “evil” was clearly in play, and in fact a major force to be reckoned with across the narrative, but “defeating” it is not the sole objective in “Syndrome.”Â Instead we wanted to start by lookingÂ into how you would “cure” evil, or “treat” evil, the way medical science attempts to do with AIDS or Alzheimer’s or clinical depression. What would that process be like? Read “Syndrome” and you’ll get one possible answer. On a personal level, I’m deeply interested in the psychology and pathology of of human behavior and motivation. My father was a clinical psychologist for over three decades, and I was in a relationship with a behavior therapist for seven years before we wrote this. Dan and I have talked about this stuff endlessly before we even got down to working on this book. I love thinking about and writing about what is actually going on in a person’s head when he makes a decision.Â
What are some of the characters we’ll be seeing in the series – both those behind the experiments and those caught as its test subjects?
DQ: One of the things that the medium of comics allowed us to have fun with is the ability to tell a story from multiple points-of-view. Because of the nature of the story, we found we could take some common archetypes and flip the script a bit so that they don’t play the way you’re used to seeing them. Hopefully our feelings about these people and their actions/motivations will shift as we learn more and see them in different contexts.Â
RJR: The big hook of this book is that an experiment, as opposed to any single character, is the “protagonist” or “hero” of the piece. What you’ll see in “Syndrome” is four highly distinct and totally intimate points-of-view on what is a gigantic scientific undertaking that, if successful, changes the world. It’s a character-driven approach, and yet no single character is center stage for the entire book. They all interact and overlap in surprising ways to push the story forward, and hopefully, when you read it, you’ll have a favorite that you plug into on a personal level. We’ve all tried to engineer “Syndrome” so that the storytelling styles, in terms of writing, art, and even coloring and lettering, are different for each of these key characters, and meant to plant the reader in the shoes of a driven scientist, an unwitting subject, a paid participant helping with the research, and an artist brought in to design the test-bed. One of those characters is a very, very, very sexy girl. I wish I could tell you more.
What can you say about the experiment being conducted on the compound and how all the players fit into the grand scheme?
RJR: We can say almost nothing about that, because the mechanics of it are the central mystery of the book and the key to a lot of the suspense we’re trying to get across. It’s big, and weird and frightening, hopefully, and involves a lot of stagecraft to pull off within the story. That’s all you’re getting.Â
DQ: The problem right now with treating psychopaths is that any potential treatment would require the participation of the subject, and they, by nature, are skilled liars who lack the motivation to change. So, the experiment at the center of “Syndrome” is an attempt to solve this problem. Although it is pretty outrageously grand in scale and ambition, and perhaps not something anyone would ever be audacious enough to actually attempt, we really tried to present it in a way that is believable. And the way we did this was by coming into it through these personal stories of our four characters. Their experience of it, hopefully, will make the whole thing plausible.
RJR: The dynamics and mechanics of the experiment are entirely real-world based, as is the science behind it. The surprise at the end of the story is not that the devil exists or anything of the sort. No Mephisto cameos whatsoever. This is the real world we are trying to portray, and a realistic approach to the notion of human evil as a behavioral problem, as opposed to a “mysterious” or even supernatural force.
What sort of research did you do while planning this series? Did you look up any psychological studies on criminal behavior or societal patterns? How did that research help shape your story?
DQ: Oh yes, all of that. There’s so much out there right now. It really is amazing what’s being done, and how we’re only just at the beginning of understanding the brain and how we think, decide, feel, etc. We’re so advanced technologically as a society, but when it comes to human behavior and psychiatry, in many ways we’re still in the dark ages. But that’s about to change and it’s all very exciting.
RJR: One story that was a huge inspiration for this aspect of the book was how Alzheimer’s Disease was isolated and discovered in the turn of the twentieth century. I’m really surprised we as a culture don’t talk more about Dr. Alois Alzheimer, but he is someone who transitioned from psychiatry to neuropathology – basically going from talking to people about their problems to cutting open actual brains to see what was going on on a structural level. Alzheimer also made his biggest and most crucial breakthrough working with a single patient, a woman named Auguste Deter who was losing her short term memory and behaving in other strange ways. When she died in 1906, Alzheimer was able to procure her brain and basically slice it open and analyze it. He discovered that a buildup of certain types of plaques was unusually high in the brain of Mrs. Deter. The scientist at the center of our story, which is set a hundred years after Alzheimer figured out you-know-what, charts a similar career path, but our guy is not studying dementia and senility. He’s studying depravity and sociopathy. And, yes, he cuts open people’s skulls to do it.
What’s it been like working together on this project? What are some of the benefits and challenges of co-authoring a story like this?
RJR: As a team, we try to think with the same brain when we’re working, and even though we have different tastes in comics, “Syndrome” wouldn’t work without a single voice coming through in the story. Writing teams in comics are tricky. Sometimes they work incredibly well, like the David Goyer-Geoff Johns stories in “JSA” or what Abnett and Lanning do in the Marvel cosmic books, but sometimes they can be underwhelming, especially when you sort of jam two big writers together on the same book. That’s not what this is at all.Â Dan and I had been writing other stuff outside comics together for a few years before we did “Syndrome” and we worked really hard to give it a single strong authoritative voice, while still collaborating creatively with David Marquez, Bill Farmer, and the teams of people at Fantasy Prone, the production studio we worked with, and Archaia, our publisher. We have been working on this book pretty much in total secrecy for the last year and a half, and it’s kind of crazy to finally be able to talk about it publicly. The biggest challenge has been and continues to be keeping our mouths shut about the twists in the story and what actually happens in the piece.Â
As a closeout, you guys worked on the “Marvel Age Spider-Man” series. I won’t ask how that series prepared you for this, but what’s it like as a writer moving from an all ages title to one that seems decidedly more adult in nature?
DQ: The deep subtext of “Marvel Age Spider-Man” was that the whole thing takes place in the mind of a serial killer sitting on death row. So it really wasn’t much of a jump to go from that to “Syndrome.”
But seriously, every project brings different challenges which is something that Josh and I love and try to seek out. Despite the inherent limitations of the project, I found writing “Marvel Age Spider-Man” to be liberating in a lot of ways. Even though there is so much you can’t do or say, with a book aimed at a younger audience you are freer to have fun and be a little silly. It was a chance to be more breathless and exuberant than usual. Writing Spider-Man was like running and leaping off a cliff – you might go splat or you might catch an updraft and start to glide, either way it’s going to be a thrill.
With “Syndrome,” we were completely unrestricted in content – which is also very fun in a different way – but the instinct when going from one extreme to the other is to overindulge and was something we fought against. We did not shy away from the darkness, but decided to be very careful and deliberate in where and how we revealed the more extreme scenes in the story so that they remain impactful and the reader never gets desensitized. Like Spider-Man, “Syndrome” was a leap off a cliff.Â And while there’s plenty of splatter, if you take the leap with us, I think it’s a pretty fun ride.
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