Liberty Or Death: Creators Talk Radical's "Shrapnel"


"Shrapnel: Aristeia Rising" #1 on sale January 7, 2009

It was more than ten years ago that Nick Saga -- the son of legendary scientist, "Cosmos" creator and science fiction author Carl Sagan --and Zombie Studios' Mark Long first conceived of what would become Radical Comics' "Shrapnel." Scripted by M. Zachary Sherman ("Star Wars: Visionaries," "Seal Team Seven") and illustrated by Bagus Hutomo, "Shrapnel: Aristeia Rising" - which debuts in January with a 48-page, $1.99 first issue -- is the first of three five-issue miniseries chronicling the revolt of Earth's colony on Venus against her imperial mother planet, and the role of a former soldier named Samantha in the galactic civil war.

We presented previously an interview with Production Designer Kai, responsible for the look of the environments and characters of "Shrapnel," and CBR News speaks now with co-creators Mark Long & Nick Sagan and scripter M. Zachary Sherman to learn more about the ambitious Radical Comics epic.

CBR: "Shrapnel" depicts a reality in which an imperial Earth government has colonized and controls nearly all of our solar system, with one holdout: Venus, led by one woman called Samantha. What else can you tell us about the story?

Mark Long: I think this comes from a discussion that Nick and I had when we first met. We found this mutual interest in Greek literature, and then of course, science fiction. And the idea that body armor might evolve to the point that it was so survivable that you would return to tactics of battles of antiquity, lined up in phalanxes and have to fight each other like that. We both love those epic films where great speeches are made about "once more into the breach" kind of things. That visual is what excited us.

It was really Nick that came up with the idea that we would have a female heroine, and also that she would rise up from modest means to vanquish an entire army on a planet, we'd take this character as far as she could go on the hero's quest.

M. Zachary Sherman: We definitely do that. We do everything we can to put Samantha in death-dealing situations. It's not only her strength of character, but her ability to bring out the best in other people that allows her and her men the ability to jump in and out of situations that no one else could get themselves out of in any way, shape or form.

Nick Sagan: That's absolutely right. She's one of these extraordinary people in history; we modeled her partly after Joan of Arc, but also Boudicca, other women warriors, and also women adventurers. I was fortunate enough to work with Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, at one point, and it struck me what a tough person she is. There is a kind of a gender selection that goes on, and if you're a woman and you're going to do one of these things, you have to really be that much stronger a person mentally than your rivals, and I think we sort of carry that through with Sam.

CBR: The structure of "Shrapnel" is very ambitious. What's the thinking behind the decision to present the story in three five-issue parts?

ML: It's the hero's journey in three parts. I describe these parts in Greek terms that are in their subtitle. "Aristeia" is Greek for "the warrior's prowess or excellence," it comes from "The Illiad." Sam reaches her greatest pinnacle of power in the first series. The third is "Nemesis," and "Hubris" is the second one. Again, the ancient Greek meaning, which I was surprised to learn when we were thinking about titling it this, that hubris is actually considered the greatest crime in ancient Greek, you could be executed for hubris, because hubris in a military context would be responsible for soldiers' useless deaths over your vanity or pride. And "Nemesis," the third, once more, ancient Greek, not modern meaning, something like the bill come due, payment for hubris.

CBR: Tell us about the work of illustrator Bagus Hutomo, production designer Kai and the Imaginary Friends Studio team on "Shrapnel."

ML: What you normally want or get is to geek out on all the futuristic details and really have a visually dense style, but instead we chose a loose, more emotional style, and I think it just serves to reinforce the script so much better. A lot of what we're trying to present is kind of this sweeping arc of a future history that references a very real ancient history, and I think we were able to communicate that. There are some pages in the book that are just so beautiful I think, and really set an emotional tone that's rare.

MZS: I've had people at Comic-Con this year come up to me and go, "Are these pages for sale somewhere?" And I'm like, "Sorry, guys, those are actually painted in the computer."

ML: Nick and I are new to comics with this series, and I know what I like personally in comics, but I'm certainly no judge of it at a commercial level. I was at the game developers conference in March this year, and I had the first pages, and began showing them to some colleagues that worked at DC or MGM, and they were really surprised by what I was showing them, and confessed that they didn't expect our book to be anything like this. And they wanted to know more, "Where are you going to go with this? How will it be published?" So I knew right away that we were on to something good.

NS: Then there's that great experience on my end of just getting the art piece by piece, and seeing it's just jaw-droppingly good. And there is a feeling that you're being pulled both into the future and towards the past at the same time. There's something almost painterly about it in a way. And it's just absolutely moving. There's an emotional power to it that packs a punch and sneaks up on you, I really like it.

MZS: To Nick's point, the painterly passion of it actually allows you to feel kind of this fine art emotional side of it where it's almost like you're looking at historical painting pieces, but then you turn the page and there's a guy in ceramic plated armor. But you get the sense of being on the battlefield with someone like a Russell Crowe in "Gladiator" or something, it's very different, but it's very energetic at the same time.

CBR: What made you decide to make the first issue 48 pages?

ML: That was Radical's decision. It's a good starting example of how lucky we were to end up with them. They just instantly got what we were wanting to do. In the very first meeting, [publisher] Barry Levine committed to the entire trilogy because he'll probably double-issue each of the first [issues of all three miniseries]. He double-issued them, he has four variant covers, and he's selling them for $1.99, I mean, if that isn't trying to gain fans, I don't know what else you can do. Anything that helps us get the book to someone. I mean, for $1.99, make a chance on what we've created here and maybe you'll find something you really love.

MZS: It's hard to get fans interested in something other than what they know. Comic book fans tend to gravitate to what they know and have collected for years, so even if "Aquaman" stinks, if you've been collecting it for years, you're still going to buy it, if you are loyal to your characters.

So what we're trying to do is we're trying to reach outside of the comfort zone for most comic book fans and say, "Hey, you know what? With the art that we've got, with the research that we've done, with the story that we've crafted, and the characters that we've tried to create that have a sense of emotion to them, we're trying to reach out to these audiences and say, "Give our book a chance," because I think once you get through that first issue, you're really going to be invested in these characters, who they are, what they're facing, and the insurmountable odds that they're going to have to overcome. It really is a powerful story, and it's all about humanity. Even in the face of all of this technology and all of this amazing military gear and phalanx and all of these different types of constructs, it's still all about the individual and how you have to overcome your greatest fears to become the best person that you can be. And that was, for me, the major focus of writing this story was concentrating on those characters, and getting people invested in them so they would come back for subsequent issues.

CBR: How else do you plan to promote "Shrapnel?"

MZS: Radical has asked me to do the Samantha blog. So that will be fun, getting into the head of the character, and getting to do something a little more personal into what that person would be like.

NS: Right, it gives you tremendous flexibility, too, to kind of put us in another person's soul, effectively.

MZS: Sure. And my plan for it was everything leading up to where the book starts. The back-story. She walks off the transport and it's her first day on Venus.

NS: I like that. It creates its own sort of structure and its own rhythm and its own drama to it. It's like added value for people who become fans of the series.

CBR: How does your collaboration work?

MZS: It's been a fantastic process, and one of the things I will congratulate Nick on through this whole process is always questioning -- not in a defensive way, but in a devil's advocate way -- "How do we make this better? That's a great idea, how do we make it better?" It was a challenge, and it was one that I definitely liked to step up to because it's so easy to fall back into easy patters, just saying, "Yeah, we can do this, because I kind of saw it on this TV show." Nick's like, "Yeah, that's a great idea, but what if we change that and did something else to it?" And both Nick and Mark pushed me in that direction, and it was a fantastic collaborative effort just because of that for me.

NS: We pushed you and you rose to it beautifully. I think the finished project is something we're all going to be very, very thrilled with.

CBR: Have you seen a finished issue of "Shrapnel?"

ML: I just got for the first time to read the book lettered, you know, the whole thing put together. And I just felt so strong, the guys can tell you, I sent a message, and I was like, "Wow, this thing really came out so much better than I ever envisioned," it made me so happy to read it.

CBR: Mark and Nick, the two of you originally envisioned "Shrapnel" as a game. After the decision was made to develop the project as a comic book. How did you become involved, Zach?

MZS: Well, interestingly enough, Mark had gone to Comic-Con to find a writer for "Shrapnel," and one of the things that Comic-Con has actually become, as we all know, is kind of this haven for producers and entertainment moguls to come and find properties that they can turn into other entertainment venues as movies, video games, that kind of thing. And Mark was walking around the convention, and came by my booth over at the Image table and saw my graphic novel "SOCOM: Seal Team Seven." And he picked it up, and he said, "Hey, who can I talk to about this?" And the best thing was, it was like Sunday at 5:00, and I'm looking at him, and I'm like, "I just want to go home." And I said, "Yeah, I wrote that." And so Mark and I started talking, and he said, "Yeah, I totally want to turn this comic book into a video game." And I had had another company interested at one point, I was like, "Okay, we'll talk about it, here's my agent's number, whatever."

Well, Mark is a consummate professional, and got on the horn with me literally the next week, and said, "I want to fly you up to the studio, show you around, give you a contract, talk to you about everything ASAP." And I was really impressed by that. And when I got to the story, he and I clicked, because he and I have a lot in common, actually, from varying elements of our background up to what we like in fiction and what we like in reality.

And he said, "I've got this project called 'Shrapnel' I've been trying to put together, are you interested in writing that?" And he told me a little bit about it, showed me the original concept designs that were done by ["Blade Runner" designer] Syd Mead, and he mentioned that an old friend of mine named Nick Sagan was involved in it. Now, Mark didn't know that Nick and I knew each other from years ago, almost 20 years ago now, and I said, "Yeah, absolutely, I'm 100% behind it."

ML: There was something about when I first met you, Zach, at Comic-Con, and I took "Seal Team Seven" home and read it on the plane, I was like, "Wow, this would be a fucking great movie, man." You've got a great knack for that kind of action dialogue, where you got multiple plot themes going on simultaneously.

NS: Zach is a brilliant writer and a good friend, and Mark is a phenomenal talent and a good friend, so the ability for the three of us to collaborate on this is kind of a dream come true. It's a really fun process, it's been a really great ride.

CBR: Zach mentioned that the original concept art for "Shrapnel" was created "Aliens" and "Blade Runner" designer Syd Mead. What can you say about those early designs?

ML: Nick introduced me to Syd. We had a fascinating Hollywood dinner. Syd's a great storyteller, and I instantly liked him when we went out to dinner and talked about this project, but all three of us instantly gravitated towards a science fact, not fiction, approach. It was very important to the three of us that the world we develop be realized from fact as much as possible, so the early e-mails we sent back and forth to each other were about all kinds of exotic materials, and how they might evolve, and that's where the mech suits came from.

Syd went off and did his thing, and then I remember getting these first concept pieces, and it was just, my mouth was hanging open, because I'd never seen anybody design a mech like that. Mechs traditionally follow the form grammar of armor, contemporary tank armor, stamped out, and these were highly organic, asymmetrical, I think one of them even looked very crustacean, instead of a hand with fingers, it had these weird kind of pincer hands. And I just really loved where he was going with that, and that set the tone for where we ended up years later.

CBR: Are there more stories to tell in this world beyond the planned trilogy of miniseries?

MZS: Well, there are so many diverse characters in the story. We focus mostly on Samantha. But not unlike something like "Half Life." Remember when they put out the mod for the second version of "Half Life" where you can play as one of the cops or one of the soldiers? It was the "Blue Shift," I think is what it was called, where you could actually play for the other side. There are so many moral issues that are tackled in this story from both sides. The whole concept of being a marine and being told, "You have to go take these innocent people's planet not, but you're going to do what you're told to do, because you signed a contract so you can win your freedom." There's something there that can be explored, so there are several different sides of this that can actually go on to spin-off into other series, or just concentrate down the line on different sides of the spectrum.

NS: One of the things that I'm enjoying is that our sympathies can be pulled in multiple directions, as much as we are behind Sam, we can understand where her people are coming from, I think that there are a huge number of moral issues raised, the three of us have been enjoying this universe as a playground to the point that it wouldn't surprise me if we were to return to it. But right now, priority one is the first three books.

MZS: Not unlike Star Wars, which focuses on a triumvirate of Han, Luke and Leia, there are areas within that diverse universe that we've created that can be explored, if people want it, we're more than happy to do it.

"Shrapnel: Aristeia Rising" #1 goes on sale January 7, 2009 from Radical Comics.

CBR Staff Writer Andy Khouri contributed to this story.

Star Wars: Target Vader Reveals the Sith Lord's Secret Cyborg Protege

More in Comics