Some science fiction comics can jump from mental to thought-provoking at the turn of a page. Those that mash up sci-fi with other genres like noir and thriller can also send up the expectations that come with those genres. They can exploit the wild unpredictability of a creative sci-fi world and surprise us when we see something familiar; be it from old detective stories or the frightening reality of our own lives. Monitor takes inspiration from how we interact with technology then looks ahead—as any great sci-fi should. It’s currently campaigning on Kickstarter and we caught up with the comic’s writer Damian Wampler to hear more about it.
A Place To Hang Your Cape: To begin with, can you please set the scene in Monitor; what kind of world does the story take place?
Damian Wampler: Monitor takes place in the not-so-distant future where we’re all implanted with monitors before we’re born that track your movements, your communications, purchase history, vital signs – everything. Everything you see and do is recorded. Everyone is online all the time, and disconnecting from the ‘Server’ is a crime punishable by death. The government tracks everyone to keep peace and order, but there are some who resist and go off the network. These ‘Disconnects’ are hunted down and ‘deleted’ by a police force called ‘Axons’. It’s a world where we all have augmented reality implants in our eyes, so we don’t see reality – we see whatever skin overlay we want to see. It’s a world of both connectivity and disconnection. People never see reality; they live in the world they want to live in through AR.
AP2HYC: Can you tell us a bit about the hero of the story, Eric?
DW: Eric is a police enforcer who has been taught all his life that the Disconnects are deviants and radicals that need to be eliminated. All his life he dreamed of going to the Axon academy, getting a gun and badge, and upholding the laws of the city-state of Seaboard, called the ‘Ten Command Codes’. He’s an everyman at the lowest rung on the state ladder, but his ambitious hope is to move up by deleting enough Disconnects to finally get a bigger apartment with a bathtub. And he’s alone. Isolated. Consumed by propaganda and augmented reality. It’s only when he meets the Disconnects and lives with them that he begins to understand who they are, and what true connection really means. But Eric might not be the hero of this story – you’ll have to read and decide yourself. Winning a medal does not make you a hero.
AP2HYC: With science fiction like this, there’s always a shred of truth, and I think that’s pretty apparent in the premise of Monitor. What real-world inspirations did you have when writing the story?
DW: I wrote this story right after watching two documentaries. The first was called The Human Face of Big Data, about how capturing data can help us improve our world. From child speech development to early detection of health risks, it’s an uplifting and inspiring yarn about what we could do for the planet if everyone was connected all the time and sending all the data somewhere for people to analyze. But then I watched another documentary about the dark side of big data, about how Facebook and other social media sites manipulate and divide both individuals and nations. This second one showed how dangerous it is to put all of this power into the hands of someone evil. So I started writing a story about data and connection that showed both sides of the [same] coin. In my story, the city-state controls people through the monitors but also by crafting a godlike persona and requiring loyalty to the Server on a biblical scale. The Disconnects create their own community and follow ancient pre-Christian deities.
AP2HYC: You’ve cited Blade Runner and Minority Report as influences on the style of Monitor. Were there other influences you had, and how will we recognize these in the text and what kind of genres does Monitor fit into?
DW: I was definitely influenced by all the action adventure films and books I grew up with. I wanted to have a villain one step behind the hero at all times, which is a staple in all the great adventures I grew up with. I was also heavily influenced by film noir. I watched a ton of these black and white 1950s detective movies growing up, as well as some of the more modern noir films like Chinatown. Blade Runner is also a film noir – it follows all the beats that every film noir has. There’s always a down and out cop or some former detective (with some sort of addiction) who gets pulled into a situation that’s way too big for him to handle. There’s always a blonde and a brunette, a mastermind who is manipulating the whole plot, and a thug who can’t be stopped. I felt like I needed a genre to keep people in a frame that was relatable. Science fiction creates a time and place but not a genre. You can have sci-fi comedy and sci-fi horror; you need a genre to ground the audience. So I made Monitor a noir, which has familiar beats and characters that make it accessible.
AP2HYC: There appears to be quite a consistent style throughout the comic, in both color palette and kinetic page layouts. How early in your idea of the comic did you know how you’d want to tell this story?
DW: At first I set about to make an eight page adventure that was self-contained, and Elisabeth Mkheidze and Lukasz Juśkiewicz and I put it together an eight-page short in 2019 for the Elsewhere Anthology (which is fantastic by the way). If you can’t do a good eight-page story, then forget about writing a good issue or graphic novel. Elisabeth drew page one and I sent it around to several colorists to do test pages and test panels. I wanted a unique visual style. Most cyberpunk stories are highly saturated with neon colors. But I wanted a dark tone, something almost black and white like an old film noir, with just one color as an accent. I had seen some great black and white comics that just add red for blood and other important elements, and I had seen some really powerful comics done with just one color as an accent like The Creators by Michael S Bracco.
After Elsewhere, Broken Icon Comics saw the pages and asked me to expand it to a graphic novel. So then I sat down and set about expanding the world and the story. That gave me the chance to reflect and study comics to make sure I was really taking advantage of the power of sequential art. Comics have plot and story and characters like any other form of storytelling, but there’s also a design element that’s an important part of the comic experience. I wanted to tell the best story I could with the best use of the medium. A voiceover in a film differs from a caption on a comic page, for example. Comics can do things that film and TV and novels can’t, and comics can pull you in and wow you with effective use of layouts.
I spent some time researching and making sure I understood all the subtle differences. So I focused on really making a great comic that people will enjoy and remember and hold on to. So while some elements of Monitor will be familiar, once you open up the book, you’ll be in a totally different world. The color and the style is unique, I think. It’s something you’ve never really seen before.
AP2HYC: Can you tell us a bit more about the creative team on Monitor?
Elisabeth is a young art student who I met at the first ever comic book convention in Tbilisi, Georgia, which I helped set up along with Georgia’s only comic book shop Parsek 1. Elisabeth showed me some of her comics and they were amazing. She had done the lines and color and letters, and I was blown away. She’s going to go far very fast and I am lucky to have the chance to work with her. We are doing another graphic novel called Monsterly which will come out from Markosia in 2021. Elisabeth’s strength is her ability to draw people and emotions. In the way that an actor must express emotions through physical movement, Elisabeth is amazing at capturing subtle body and facial features that transmit powerful emotions to the reader. Lukasz is a young artist from Poland. I met Lukasz online and I loved his portfolio and test pages. I choose a different creative team based on the story I want to tell. These two were perfect; they really brought this story to life.