Chandra Free talks "The God Machine"

Nine years is a heck of a long time to work on a comic book before the first issue comes out, so you could understand if creator Chandra Free was disappointed by the news that Archaia Studios Press, which is set to publish Free's ongoing series "The God Machine," had pushed the title back to this fall amid company restructuring. But Free is still happy to be part of the ASP team and is working away on the series, which follows teenager Guy Salvatore as he struggles to cope with the recent death of his girlfriend, Sith, who might not be quite as dead as he thinks.

Described by its author as "a modern dark fairy tale that deals with one boy's immediate reality changing into something fantastical," full of "romance, adventure, psychological drama, super powers, monsters, secret organizations, and violence," "The God Machine" both celebrates and mocks goth culture with a simultaneously bleak and humorous look at the afterlife. Free recently spoke with CBR News about this long in-development project, her hybrid manga-indie style, and what inspired her fresh take on heaven and hell.

You've been working on "The God Machine" for quite a long time. What gave you the determination to stick with it for all these years?

It's love that binds me to this project. I'm in love with my characters, the world, and the story that surrounds it all. It's deeply personal to me and it's something that I've developed over the past decade as I've grown as a young adult. Even now I'm still coming up with new storylines for it. It always stays exciting and fresh for me as I give it new flares of horror, and political intrigue. As the kids say, it's epic.

We've seen stories of people questing after their dead loved ones before. How did you set about making "The God Machine" different from similarly premised material? How did you set Guy apart as a hero?

I see Guy not as someone who is only on a quest to find Sith, but more as someone who is questioning if there is even a quest at all. He sees the promise of Sith being alive as a result of his depression. It's something I don't see often in stories; a lead character who is truly aware of himself, and skeptical of the call to be a hero. This is not just a story of a hero's quest to find his lost love. It is an in-depth look into the mind and psyche of a young man as he confronts the mystical, the horrible, the sexual, and the insane.

"The God Machine" simultaneously revels in the gothic world while simultaneously mocking the goth scene. Do you view those two as separate, and how do you manage that balance in the story?

I have a dark story - not necessarily a "Gothic" story per se. As the story progresses, you will see that the "goth" subculture is just one small facet of interest to some of the characters.

Do your views on spirituality and afterlife inform "The God Machine?"

My versions of Heaven, Hell, and Limbo are archetypes from classic mythology. Each acts as a branch of government over multiple worlds, one of those worlds being Guy's. I derive influences from intellectuals like Gene Roddenberry, Carl Jung, Woody Allen, and Joseph Campbell. My love of storytelling and exploring human issues is what informs the book, not spirituality.

Were there any stories, books, comics or other sources of inspiration that especially fueled "The God Machine" and its direction?

If I said a boy inspired this story would it be too cliche? [laughs]

Seriously though, my biggest influences were my relationships I had at the time of the conception of "The God Machine," bouts with depression, and some themes that I had played around with in my earlier years. Pop culture, cartoons, science fiction, and the world at large have all influenced my comic.

Though you have a background in manga, you seem to be going largely in another direction with the art in this series, though it still has a few manga touches. What new influences are you bringing in that have led to your current style?

It should be noted that I've been drawing my whole life, and I've always wanted to be an animator, illustrator, fine artist, comic artist, basically whatever type of artist I could be. So I've been heavily influenced by the cartoons of my childhood, and onward. I was heavily influenced by manga and anime from roughly 1990-1998, which was more or less during my teen years when I was slowly getting out of my Disney phase, and looking for new avenues of storytelling and styles. Anime and manga was edgy back then, adult in nature, and it was a totally different mindset than what I was accustomed to.

In 1999, I got off anime. I was looking for something different to take its place. I was introduced to the book "I Feel Sick: A Story About a Girl," by ["Johnny the Homicidal Maniac" and "Invader Zim" creator] Jhonen Vasquez. I was so smitten with this new style, it was so American, but it wasn't the typical superhero variety. It seems cliche, you know, the high school kid going from anime to Vasquez - in fact it seems that Vasquez is the gateway drug to indie comics for recovering Animesters. I was so profoundly inspired by his work that it sparked my interest in trying to develop a new style. I began to revert back to my original style of drawing, while at the same time I was incorporating some things I had learned while doing the anime style.

Tell us about your studies in art.

When I got out of high school, I attended college to get a degree in fine art. I didn't get to take as many art courses as I wanted to since I went to a normal public university that had an under-funded college of art. What I did take away from college was the refinement of my anatomy and drawing skills. Along the way, I have been inspired by the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements. These movements are where I derive my love of ornamentation. My favorite artists from this time include Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Alphonse Mucha and I'm bringing some of their influences into my current style.

I also bring in my love for abstract elements to give a more emotional impact to scenes in terms of color and movement.

"The God Machine" is very original in its page layouts. Was that by design? How do you go about composing a page?

I've always enjoyed intuitive organic elements, and layouts that flow together in terms of composition. I find the traditional way of paneling doesn't always work with my aesthetic or the emotional content inside of the panel. My mind has a weird way of thinking about things in a stream of consciousness, and that's usually how things come about through my drawings and initial layouts. Conversely though, I'm currently trying to bring in more straightforward panels to aid in the readability of the page.

Why did you decide to put much of the unfinished story online? That could be seen as a risky move in terms of finding a publisher.

I look at it as a form of building an audience. What I have online is merely a preview of the comic. This serves as a way to introduce people to the series and give people the opportunity to see how one person makes a comic. The online version is only extremely rough pencils and my handwritten script that I sometimes adlib from my original script (complete with spelling errors and grammar errors). In other words, it's extremely rough. The published version of the book will be completely different - finished polished art in glorious color, and a rewritten script that finally makes sense.

When I decided to put up the first three books online, I already had a decent amount of fans that had enjoyed my illustration work with my characters. I felt I had teased them long enough and they deserved a sneak peak.

How did you connect with Archaia Studios Press? How has that partnership been so far?

It was in February 2007, New York Comic Con. I was looking for a publisher, and I had a packet of finished black and white pages accompanied with color illustrations of my characters. I only had six sets of these because they were expensive to print, so I had to pick my publishers wisely. ASP was always on my list; in fact they were one of my top two dream publishers. I was admittedly scared they wouldn't want my book since I was originally proposing it as a black and white when all of their books were in color.

One of my friends, Alex Eckman-Lawn (whose artwork I adore) was already being published by ASP for his work on "Awakening." He encouraged me to show [ASP publisher] Mark Smylie my packet. Mark liked what I gave him, and wanted to publish me, but only if I did my comic in color.

I had never envisioned my book in vibrant colors, so admittedly I was frightened by the idea of doing the book in color. Fast forward to about September; I was feeling down about not being published till I had a heart to heart with one of my good friends who told me to get back out there and get a publisher. I got in touch with Alex to see how he liked working with ASP. He told me that Mark had just recently asked about what I was doing with "The God Machine" and that I needed to get in touch with him as soon as possible. After I got in touch with Mark, he had me do some sample color pages. At that point I had experience with coloring on the comic "Sullengrey" issue #5, so I was ready to take on the daunting task of coloring my own book. Which actually worked out for the best. My book works so much better in color than I could have ever imagined.

I love ASP - they have been nothing but amazing and professional. Not to mention that I feel that my book is in good company with the rest of ASP's lineup.

After spending so much time on this book, are you ready to jump to something else? Have you any new stuff in the works?

Heh, I'm just getting started telling Guy Salvatore's story. This is an epic tale that I've been waiting about nine years to tell, and man do I have a massive story to tell. So I'm certainly not going to any other project at this time. Don't get me wrong; I'm always thinking of other projects for whenever "The God Machine" gets done, but that's years away.

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Tags: archaia, chandra free, god machine

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