INTERVIEW: McDuffie Award Winner Talks His Experimental Sci-Fi Comic

Since 2015, the The Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity has been awarded each year at Long Beach Comic Expo, celebrating the work of new comics which not only tell an interesting story with a diverse cast that represents voices who aren't heard often enough in the industry -- but which are changing the way people view comics as a whole.

Winning the award has become a signifier of work which is notable, fresh and contemporary, experimenting with comics as a form and bringing something new and thoroughly entertaining to comics fans. This year's winner, Ezra Claytan Daniels' "Upgrade Soul," is certainly an example of that.

Originally released as a digital app in collaboration with Erik Loyer, the comic transitions the pages in a fashion unique for the digital format, and features a soundtrack from musician Alexis Gideon which flows through the pages as the reader moves through the story. It's not just an incredibly well-told and smart piece of comics narrative, it's one which explores what a comics narrative can be. Following Daniels' win at this year's ceremony, CBR spoke to the cartoonist about the project, how it came together and what it was like to win this year's coveted trophy.

CBR: What’s your background as a writer and artist? How did you first get into making comics?

Ezra Claytan Daniels: I've been drawing comics since I was a little kid. I had a really terrible yet deadly serious comic strip about a troupe of circus performers fighting a manipulative alien in my high school paper. But my professional background is in graphic design and commercial illustration, with detours into forensic illustration and user interface design (I designed the UI for the mobile app, iAnnotate PDF). I started making autobio zines a few years after high school, largely as an excruciatingly juvenile attempt to meet women. Seriously, those old comics are the worst thing ever.

You’ve published several comics over the last decade or so, including “The Changers” and “A Circuit Closed”, but when did you first start work on “Upgrade Soul”? What made you want to tell this story?

I first started thinking about the ideas behind "Upgrade Soul" in my early 20s, before I did "The Changers." I wanted to write a horror story, so I thought, "What's the scariest thing I can imagine?" At the time, it was obsolescence. Being faced with someone who's better at being me than I am. I was actually more into "Upgrade Soul" as a concept, but I knew I wasn't a good enough writer yet to do something that ambitious. So I did "The Changers" first, sort of as a practice graphic novel. "The Changers" was ambitious, too, but it's really low-key and straight-forward. It's essentially an escape fantasy about myself and my roommate being super-beings from the future. I learned so much about making comics by self publishing that book, though, from publicity to working with distributors, to touring. I had a blast. After the dust settled, I sat down to really try to figure out Upgrade Soul. That was about 12 or 13 years ago. I'd been working on it off and on until I finally finished this past December.

Who are Hank and Molly, the two leads of the series? What kind of people are they, and where do we find them as the comic begins?

The two main characters, Hank and Molly, are based on my grandparents, Leon and Barb. They were like second parents to me growing up, and we were super close. I wanted the main characters to be people you don't see in comics very often. I wanted to try to put myself in the shoes of people I knew very well, but who were very different from me. I wanted to make a book that didn't feel familiar. Something I personally would've been really excited to see on a comic shelf as a reader. The story introduces Hank and Molly as wealthy investors in an experimental cellular rejuvenation procedure. Their only stipulation for support of the project is that they be the first to undergo the procedure.

The drama begins when a the procedure fails and Hank and Molly are faced with clones of themselves who are severely disfigured, but intellectually and physically far superior. The story is thematically about which counterpart better represents the identity of the individual; the one that looks and sounds like the person, or the one that's, by every non-aesthetic metric, a perfect idealization of that person.

Your art style seems to primarily draw from both European and Japanese influences -- is it fair to say those were the comics you grew up reading and loving?

I liked comics fine as a kid and teen, but I was way more into animation. And you called it, the films I loved the most were definitely Japanese and European. "Fantastic Planet," "Akira," "Lensman," "Venus Wars," "Fire & Ice" -- these were on constant rotation.

I think there's a very animation-y feel to my art -- it's very flat and clean, like animation cells. But after I dropped out of art school, I fell into trial graphics, doing medical and technical illustrations and infographics for court cases. That industry is all about clarity of information, with no room for embellishments. I definitely read "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way" when I first started getting serious about comics, but I vehemently disagreed with a lot of it, particularly the part about using dynamic angles to heighten drama. I hated in comics when you couldn't keep track of where characters were standing in a room because every panel was drawn from a different angle on the floor or ceiling. I think this aversion came from my time doing crime scene diagrams.

I never want my reader to be distracted from the narrative because I drew something weirdly. I sometimes describe my style as looking like an aircraft safety card.

You’ve released the story as an app in collaboration with Erik Loyer. Was it difficult to make that leap to digital, after first planning and developing "Upgrade Soul" in a more traditional format?

I'd been working on "Upgrade Soul" for a few years, pitching it around every once in a while but not really getting any traction. I'd done some work with Erik on smaller interactive comics projects, like his Reuben and Lullaby app, and an interactive essay he designed for academic Caren Kaplan, called "Precision Targets." He started to develop an interactive comics platform for iOS and asked if I wanted to do something for it. I was deep into "Upgrade Soul" by then, and it hadn't found a home, so I said "sure"!

I hadn't done enough work on it by that point for it to be a huge hassle to imagine it for the digital platform, but it definitely still has roots in the print format. It was a seamless transition to the print version I'm shopping now. I'm definitely historically interested in technology and gaming, but I hadn't given any real thought to digital comics before Erik approached me. Although, now that I think about it, I did put out the last issue of my crappy auto-bio comic a few years prior as a CD-ROM, so maybe I'm not giving myself enough credit! The "Upgrade Soul" app is on hiatus, though. It's only the first half of the story.

Hopefully, after I find a publisher, we can work out a way to come back to it because I'm totally in love with it. It's just not on the road map right now.

At what point did the audio aspect of “Upgrade Soul” first come into place? How did musician Alexis Gideon come on board the project, and what did that decision bring to the story overall?

Once Erik and I decided to work together, we just started having all these really heady conversations about the definition of comics and what to do and what not to do with the technology at our disposal. Our conversations eventually evolved into a manifesto that became the centerpiece of a digital comics portal I designed with Amsterdam-based Submarine Channel, ScreenDiver.com. A huge part of our digital comics philosophy was to never take temporal control from the reader. This meant that literal sound effects, which would have the effect of representing a passage of time, were out. But music, designed to create and maintain an atmosphere, was fair game.

In "Upgrade Soul," the music follows your progress through the story, so every panel triggers a specific musical cue. You play the music almost the same way you read the comic, at your own pace. I'd done some design and animation work with Alexis, and we worked really well together. I'm just such a huge fan of his music; his singular brand of classically-trained experimental weirdo hip-hop was the perfect fit for "Upgrade Soul."

When did you find out you’d been nominated for the Dwayne McDuffie Award?

I follow the Dwayne McDuffie Foundation on social media, and they posted a call for submissions a few weeks before I finished "Upgrade Soul." The timing was perfect. I didn't think I had any chance in hell of winning, but it's just really helpful to have hard goals like that to finish something, especially since I was really losing steam toward the end. I guess it was a month or so later that I got an email from them letting me know I was among 5 finalists. I was incredibly honored, but even then, I didn't think I had any chance of winning. I've never won anything in my life. And I was up against Dave Walker, who'd been having like the best year ever.

I didn't find out I'd won until everybody else did, at the ceremony at Long Beach Comics Expo. It was so funny and awesome and weird. I happened to be the only nominee who was able to attend, since I live in LA, so they asked me to give a little talk before the winner was announced about what Dwayne McDuffie meant to me. I was so worried about how awkward it was going to be when I didn't win! But little did I know that all the judges and Dwayne McDuffie folks already knew.

The ceremony was MC'd by Phil Lamarr, and it was such a surreal honor to get to hang out with the voice of Static Shock. Everybody involved in the foundation, and the judges, were so amazing and sweet and supportive. Charlotte, Dwayne's widow, was just incredibly inspiring. It was most definitely the highlight of my career thus far.

Was Dwayne McDuffie a creator you were aware of, prior to your nomination?

My brother and I were constantly looking for heroes that looked like our dad, who was Black. We latched onto every Black character in the action movies we loved. The white neighborhood kids would fight to be Arnold when we played "Predator," but we'd always be Bill Duke and Carl Weathers. We collected every black "G.I. Joe" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation" figure. But those characters were always sidekicks or bit players. So when the "Static Shock" cartoon came out, we were just transfixed. It was pure magic. I didn't learn until years later how important Dwayne McDuffie was to so many other kids of color, and how monumental his legacy was.

It’s an award specifically noting works which offer representation within the pages -- was that something you had at heart when you were making the comic, that idea of representing people whose stories don’t usually get told, and digging into their personalities and culture?

Absolutely. As a mixed race person (my mom is white), it's an inextricable part of my being. "Upgrade Soul" gets into the ways in which our experience of life, or how we are treated by the world, forms our identity. It looks at the ways racial discrimination is both similar and distinct from age, sex and ability discrimination. These are the kinds of ideas that interest and challenge me as both a writer and a reader.

What’s next for you, following the conclusion of “Upgrade Soul” and as it now looks for a publisher? Do you have any other projects coming up?

Fingers crossed "Upgrade Soul" finds a good home, but it'll come out this year one way or another. I also recently finished a short film collaboration with Adebukola Bodunrin that just started it's festival life. It just screened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and the Whitney in New York, and is screening at the Boston Underground Film Fest in March. It's an experimental sci-fi animation that reimagines the Yoruba creation myth in a space station built around a simulation of the Big Bang. It's called The Golden Chain.

I also have a new graphic novel on the home stretch with the incredible Ben Passmore, tentatively called "BTTMFDRS." I'm writing it and he's drawing it. It's a horror comedy about gentrification and cultural appropriation and I'm so excited for people to see it! We should wrap that up by this summer so look for that this year, too!

To find out more about "Upgrade Soul" and Ezra Claytan Daniels' work, check out his website and his Ttwitter account here.

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