Shaun Manning Goes On A Strange Trip With "Interesting Drug"

Drugs are bad! Unless they can help you travel through your own timeline and see what happens, of course. That's the basic concept behind Shaun Manning's "Interesting Drug," though whether the results turn out to be a positive or negative remains to be seen.

Manning, whose previous credits include work published in the pages of "Dark Horse Presents" and "Hope: New Orleans" along with a stint writing for CBR, makes his graphic novel debut in May with the Archaia-published OGN. The book finds the writer teaming with artist Anna Wieszczyk to tell the story of Andrew, a regular guy who is tapped by a time traveler named Tristram to create the drug. As you can imagine, the resulting product becomes pretty popular, launching Andrew into the unlikely role of drug kingpin as people become more and more addicted to this unique brand of nostalgia.

CBR News spoke with Manning about the progression of "Interesting Drug," from its genesis as a prose project to comics, creating the sci-fi world and how workshops helped strengthen the completed graphic novel.

CBR News: The concept of time travel via drug is interestingly unique. Was there a particular event that inspired the idea, or did it just come to you one day?

Shaun Manning: Ha! No, no specific event inspired me to write about time travel drugs. I just thought that, in the vast majority of time travel stories, it's a machine that lets you do it -- something external, not part of oneself. But if, as some people think, every moment of your life, past and present, is a part of you, if all of history is happening at once, shouldn't there be a natural -- or at least internalized -- way to access that? 

I'm not saying any of this is true, by the way, or even that I believe it. But it makes for a type of story I've never really seen before and something I thought would be interesting to explore. 

When the pill takers ingest the drug, do they physically or mentally travel through time or are they more going back into their own memories?

The question as to what exactly happens when users take the drug is a pretty central part of the story. It's not just a visit to memory lane, though -- users travel along their memories into a specific moment in time. Which is why a person is bound to traveling only within his or her own lifetime, and why it's much harder to travel into the future than the past.

People who use the drug end up as they were at the moment they've chosen. If a guy takes a trip back to high school to ask out the head cheerleader, he will be in his high school body; if he decides to go back and murder his boss on the day he got fired, he'll be whatever age he was that day. Our bad guy has a way around this. We'll see what that could be.

What can you tell us about the mysterious traveler who asks Andrew to help him create the drug?

His name's Tristram, and he really is from ten years in the future. Probably everything else he tells you is a lie. He is an expert at time traveling with the drug, and has developed a few tricks. But, as is so often the case, it's not enough. He wants more. 

Fun story: I had started writing "Interesting Drug" as a novel, before I'd done much work with CBR. Originally Tristram was called Jonah. Once I knew it would be a comic and I'd spent a good amount of time as a CBR staff writer, I thought it would be a bit awkward if I named my first major villain after the boss [ CBR Executive Producer Jonah Weiland]. I was reading "Tristram Shandy" at the time, and thought it pretty unlikely I'd end up working for a Tristram.

What was the process like, changing "Interesting Drug" from a prose novel to a graphic novel?

There wasn't too much of a process in that I knew pretty early it should be a comic rather than a novel; whether it was something to do with my writing style, or the subject or the characters, it wasn't working as a text thing. But having written the first few scenes out in text did give me a different perspective on who these characters were, compared to how they might have come together if I'd written it as a script first.  

What actually gave me the motivation to push forward with it as a comic was my workshop at Comics Experience. This was in its early days, when [President and CEO] Andy Schmidt was running it as an in-person thing in New York. CE is now all online, which is great since I'm no longer in New York. But the first chapter of "Interesting Drug" was my project for the Advanced Writing Workshop, where we had to script a full issue. What's actually published is a far cry from what I presented, but it was a great feeling to finish a comic script and get useful feedback on it.

I really do recommend workshops for new writers, whether it's with an organization like CE, or through a university, or something informal. Because, you know, if one person doesn't like your work, who cares -- he's an asshole. But if nine people are sitting there telling you this part could be better, or this scene needs work, or the whole thing is rubbish -- that's worth listening to. And the same goes for people liking your work. It's good to have feedback.

Getting back into the story itself, why does Tristram go to Andrew, a retail worker, to invent this drug?

Well, Tristram's story is that he comes back to meet Andrew because that's the way the drug was invented -- he's playing the role he has to play. Andrew has to go along with it, because that's what he did in Tristram's past. Not all of this is true.

Andrew is incredibly smart, but his life has stalled. Tristram sees an opportunity there. That's pretty much the root of it.

The idea of nostalgia becoming addictive and drug-like is particularly interesting. It's the kind of thing that can plague various geek communities. Was that an inspiration for the story?

Not in the sense of wanting the Silver Age back, or a different Green Lantern, if that's what you mean. Although, hey, that instinct is not foreign to me! The nostalgia as addiction thing was actually something that came up after I started writing, but it inspired a lot of other stuff that happens within it. I mean, I can remember even in middle school thinking about, well, what if I'd done this differently? How could I have handled this? What would happen here, and would it have been better? You're never too young for regrets, I guess, and I think the reason we see so many stories of people going back -- often in comedies, many times to high school, of all bloody places! -- is that it speaks to that need to see what if? There's a sense that I think, if it were possible to take a pill and go back, a ton of people would -- even to the exclusion of their present life. After all, why live a life that's constantly changing and unknowable, when you can pick and choose specific moments and control events from a future perspective?

Andrew has something pretty legitimate he wants to go back for, though. We'll see what it costs him to overwrite his own past. There is a cost to what he's doing, and the benefits are less tangible than he'd hope.

How does Andrew respond to being thrust into the role of a drug kingpin? 

He's not happy about his role as kingpin, but he sees it as a means to an end. Andrew has a plan for the drug, he really thinks he's got it all under control. He really doesn't. 

Luckily, his best friend Leilani is willing to help him out, often against her own better judgment. She's suspicious of Tristram from the start.

It sounds like a lot's happening in this graphic novel, do you have plans for more stories set in this world or featuring these characters?

The characters you see here, Andrew, Leilani and Tristram, I'm pretty sure this is their story beginning to end. But yes, I do have some thoughts about other things to explore in this world, things that are touched on briefly in the book.  If all goes well, I've got a few more stories to tell.

Time travel stories can be tricky because of the various rules set forth in previous stories. Does "Interesting Drug" follow those rules or play with them a bit?

I hammered out some pretty specific rules with my fantastic editor, Rebecca Taylor. There were some things we had to resolve from what I'd envisioned in my initial draft, but there's definitely a set of rules for how time travel works in this book, and they're all there in the story. Yes, it's tricky, but "Interesting Drug" is at least internally consistent. The rules might not be ones you recognize, but they're set here.

At its most basic, though, the rule is that a person can only travel along his or her own timeline, from the moment of birth until the moment of death. Memories serve as anchors. And there are some unexpected effects of mucking about in the past, not a butterfly effect, but something both more subtle and more grand.

How did you discover Anna Wieszczyk's art and what made her the right artist for "Interesting Drug?" 

Anna is great. I found her by just putting a call out on some of the "seeking artist" forums, Digital Webbing, Penciljack and the like. Honestly, I actually had an entirely different style in mind. But Anna's sample came through and I knew right away that was what I wanted.  It's just bright and kinetic and alive, and she made Tristram look like this totally charismatic evil bastard. It was great. 

Anna and I work really well together. "Interesting Drug" was our first project together, but in the midst of getting this book ready we also launched a digital-first series called "Hell, Nebraska" on Comixology and iVerse and are looking to do something a bit different once that wraps. She's incredibly versatile, and she's rocked everything I've given her. 

I'm very excited that people are finally going to get to read "Interesting Drug," which we've both been pouring so much effort into for quite some time. Enjoy the trip!

"Interesting Drug" from Shaun Manning, Anna Wieszczyk and Archaia lands in stores this May.

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