Matt D. Wilson: Human Writer, Talks "Copernicus Jones: Robot Detective"

A number of new titles have debuted through Monkeybrain Comics over the last few months, but none feature as many cynical, hard-sleuthing androids as "Copernicus Jones: Robot Detective does. Written by Matt D. Wilson and drawn by Kevin Warren, the series kicked off in January and saw the private eye quickly get drawn into a mystery filled with goons, guns, gals and, well, gears.

Known as a writer and reporter, as well as for his King Oblivion books, "Copernicus Jones" marks Wilson's first published work as a comic book writer. CBR spoke with Wilson about where his idea for a mechanical gumshoe came from, what readers can expect from the series and just why a robot would be so interested in solving human crimes.

CBR News: Where did the idea for "Copernicus Jones" come from?

Matt D. Wilson: This whole thing actually started as a parody. I love noir, but my earliest introduction to it, before I was ever aware of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, was these silly parodies of it. The '80s were a kind of a weird boom time for people sending up noir. One I really remember is an episode of the "Jim Henson Hour" called "Dog City," which had all the old noir tropes, but with dogs instead of people, and a lot of puns. It was goofy as all get out, but it made me love private detectives, and that atmosphere, forever. When kids my age were playing as astronauts or whatever, I was playing private eye.

That's why the first pages of this hit on some of the oldest genre tropes. A femme fatale walks right into Copernicus' office on page two. I fully intended for that to feed into a zanier comedy, but what it absolutely ended up being is a love letter to the genre. Everything about it.

I also have this long-standing habit of pairing up with funny names with funny occupations, and "Copernicus Jones: Robot Detective" just stuck in my head one day and wouldn't leave. I had to do something with it.

What is it, exactly, about the genre that appeals to you so strongly?

Oh, I love it. I love the theme of the genre that people tend to be their own worst enemies, or that overreaching will inevitably lead to a fall. It's so strange. Noir almost never has a happy ending. It's a downright fatalistic genre. But it's...fun? Maybe it's because we're so far removed from the world of the time, or that whole notion that people get what they deserve.

I also love that it's all about secrets. Nothing makes me want to keep reading something more than wanting to know what a character's secret is.

Are there any particular noir stories you'd recommend for people who like the first issue of "Copernicus Jones?"

Copernicus is not-at-all-subtly based in part on Philip Marlowe, so anything by Raymond Chandler is a great place to start. "The Long Goodbye" is a favorite of mine. Movie-wise, "The Maltese Falcon" (which is also a great Hammett novel) has just the right atmosphere. And for an actual trenchcoat/hat wearing detective, "Out of the Past" is really good.

Speaking of which, why put a robot in the trenchcoat and hat? And what does a robot detective bring to a case that humans don't?

Copernicus is different from a human investigator in that he knows the world of robots. He understands them in a way humans don't, so he can make plays they wouldn't. That becomes really apparent a few issues from now. Also, he's got some tech features that help him investigate, like software that helps him organize everything. It's a sort of digital version of a police bulletin board. That said, he's an old model, so he's still got to do things like use binoculars. No zoom-in eyes for his clunky self.

As far as the trenchcoat and hat go, that's actually an upcoming story -- there's a reason.

How do humans and robots get along in this world? There's a bit of a feeling like neither group are aware there's anything unusual about the other -- you play things in the same way, say, the Muppets do.

There's a history there. Some humans are still pretty bigoted toward robots, but it's under the surface, at least in this first arc. A waitress makes an unfriendly comment in this issue. In the next issue, one of the mob goons and Copernicus will get into a discussion about the human/robot divide, and you'll see little mentions here and there that there was actually a robot fight for rights years ago.

The series is published in black and white, rather than color -- were you deliberately trying to evoke the feel of a period piece?

Absolutely. The idea is that it takes place in people of the past's idea of the future, but then that future world got a little run down and grimy. It's definitely meant to enhance the atmosphere.

It's also a way to give us a little bit of Copernicus' perspective. You'll notice there are spot colors in the book; I sort of think that's how he sees. He doesn't see colors unless he really needs to.

How did you and artist Kevin Warren come together for this project? What sold you on him as your ideal collaborator?

I had put the message out that I was looking for someone to work with on the book, which had kind of been floating around the ether of the Internet for a while, either in concept or in various aborted attempts to do it, and he emailed me with some samples. I asked him to send me some mock-ups for what Copernicus might look like, and he sent me back stuff that sold me immediately.

It's really hard to make a metal robot with a face that pretty much stays in one position expressive, you know? Particularly when you're talking about static images rather than moving ones. But Kevin pulled it off. Copernicus has instant personality. Kevin worked some magic on that.

The nice thing is, I really know where the story is going, now. I knew the ending before, but now I know everything in the middle, too. 

As you say, Copernicus Jones has existed in previous forms online. Having a second chance to write his first adventure, to what extent did you go back and change the dialogue, and his character? Do you feel like you had a better understanding of what you wanted the series to be, because you've written him previous to this issue #1?

I actually expanded the story a bit, to make some of the moments that come later hit harder. For instance, the version that came before didn't have Paulie Ocean, a crime-boss robot, in the first issue at all. Only a mention. Now, there's a picture of him inside Copernicus' investigative software. It's much better for setting up something that comes later. It's very small things like that, but it's nice to get those little details in to make the mystery unfold a with a little more planning.

There's a mix of parody and actual noir in the first issue. How do you balance the two? Is it difficult to make fun of noir but still tell a compelling story?

Well, again, my original intent was to do something way more parody-focused. I think how I make it work in my head is I tell myself that Copernicus must be at least a little aware that he's a character. He's got an AVI file of "The Big Sleep" somewhere in his memory banks, so he can comment a little more knowingly about what he's doing than he maybe would otherwise. But he's not fully aware of it, either. He's narrating to someone, but he doesn't really know who.

Do you think comedy works best when played straight? The first issue doesn't call attention to many of the jokes, asking the readers to put them together themselves, instead.

For something like this, yes. If Copernicus turned around and winked at the reader, like the narrator in my supervillain parody books constantly does, the whole thing would fall apart. He has to care about the mystery at the center of the story to make the reader care about it. And I do really want to tell a genuine mystery story.

One thing which comes with Monkeybrain is the opportunity to work with designer/letterer Dylan Todd, who is a part of many of their titles. What was it like to get to work with him on this series?

This is actually his first-ever lettering gig. We're all pretty fresh, but he's a pro. He sent me a whole bunch of logos for the book, all of which were just stunningly beautiful, and perfect for the tone without being a rip-off of something else. Dylan's just fantastic at what he does.

Speaking on Monkeybrain - what prompted you to take the series to them?

The more appropriate question might be what prompted them to take a chance on us, given that this is the first go any of us have had at a published comic. But there's just a lot of freedom at Monkeybrain. A lot of publishers simply wouldn't be interested in a book that's this genre and that has this concept. Chris Roberson and Allison Baker have been huge supporters from the get-go; they just want to publish comics they like.

What's your perspective on digital comics, overall? What do you see as the challenges for digital comics and publishers over the next few years?

I think there's still a ways to go before they're no longer seen as the "other," if that makes sense. The medium's making big strides. "Bandette" winning Eisners was huge, but the fact remains that even comiXology separates the digital versions of print comics from digital-first series, and a lot of shops still view digital sales as the enemy. It'll take time more than anything, but eventually digital and print will have to be two sides of the same coin rather than something people put at odds.

More and more creators are taking their creator-owned work to digital publishers like Thrillbent, Monkeybrain or Panel Syndicate. Do you think this is the next big push for comics as a whole?

It's certainly a great venue for work that is riskier, and that's great. There's so much initial cost inherent in publishing something in print. You have to guarantee a return. "The Private Eye" -- which is, in some ways a take on detectives that's the opposite of everything I'm doing with "Copernicus Jones," given how colorful and really-futuristic it is--is a really complex book that, frankly, might be really hard for a publisher to sell. It's hard to break that book down into a logline. So it being available digitally, where there's less overhead and more room for experimentation, is fantastic.

Now you've made this first step into published comics, do you have plans to make more comics? What do you have coming up in the future?

I certainly do. I have a script and an outline for something more superhero-oriented (or, if we're being honest, supervillain-oriented, though it isn't an offshoot of my "King Oblivion Ph.D." books) that I've been working on for a good long time. I've talked to some artists about pitching that, but it's very much in the early stages. I'm in talks for another King Oblivion book somewhere down the road. And there's more Copernicus to write, in addition to my podcasts and everything else I do.

I may do too many things.

"Copernicus Jones: Robot Detective" is available now via Monkeybrain Comics.

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