INTERVIEW by GARY GOLDMAN | PHOTOGRAPHY by KERRY MADDUX
Comic books get a bad rap. Sure, crowds flood annually to the San Diego Convention Center to catch a glimpse of the main stars of [insert super-hero name] [insert movie number from 2 to 8]. Sure, it’s “chic to be a geek,” and the general public is slowly recognizing the incredible narrative potential of the medium. Still, I can’t remember the last time I saw someone on the subway reading a comic book, let alone have anyone recommend one. “Nonplayer,” Nate Simpson’s seminal image comic – which won the much coveted Eisner Award at said San Diego Convention Center – acts as a great equalizer by satisfying the most savvy of comic readers (gorgeous graphics, intense action sequences intercut with emotionally poignant moments), as well as a novice like myself (continuous elements of reality in the midst of the fantasy). With overwhelmingly positive responses, the self-proclaimed “sometimes comic, sometimes games” illustrator got the rights to his work acquired by Warner Bros last August. Read the interview, and then do yourself a big service by checking out “Nonplayer” and meeting Dana Stevens: tamale delivery girl / elite assassin.
Congratulations on your recent Eisner Award at Comic-Con. How was your experience in San Diego?
I hadn’t been to SDCC since the mid-90s, and that visit was marred by a disastrous portfolio review at the Marvel booth — so disastrous that I didn’t bother showing my work to any other publisher for a decade and a half. Since then, the city of San Diego has loomed in my memory as a place where dreams go to die. I think it’s pretty rare in life to get a chance to heal a wound like that, so it’s kind of sublime that this reversal of fortune took place in exactly the same building. It was a great day.
Let’s talk about your comic book, which is generating a lot of buzz right now: Nonplayer. Could you introduce our readers to the main story?
Sure. Nonplayer follows the near-future exploits of Dana Stevens, a girl who spends all of her free time playing a full-immersion online game called Warriors of Jarvath. Though Dana’s real-life prospects are dim, she’s an elite assassin inside the game. When she kills the wife of celebrity non-player character King Heremoth, the NPC reacts with unexpectedly lifelike grief and rage, swearing a blood vendetta that threatens to spill out into Dana’s real life. The setting is equal parts virtual and real, with augmented reality providing some shades of mixed reality in-between.
Nonplayer follows a college dropout who lives with her mom. You know you’re giving false hope to undergrads who might stop school in the hopes of becoming an elite assassin, right?
Hey, it’s already a legitimate career path in South Korea. I’m not sure that hope is all that false anymore.
What inspired you to create the world of Jarvath (which looks absolutely stunning by the way)? Did you research a lot of alternative universes from various works of fiction?
I didn’t really need to do too much research to develop Jarvath — we’ve all already had Tolkien, Moebius, and World of Warcraft drilled deep into our bones, so that stuff flows pretty naturally. I have to gather a lot more reference material for the real-world sequences, because when you draw a scooter or a crushed soda can, people will know if you’ve gotten it wrong. When it comes to ornate armor or castles, it’s much easier to improvise.
How did you transition from the world of video games to that of comics? What triggered the decision, and what kind of drawing experience did you have prior to starting Nonplayer?
I’ve been working in games since 1993 — my father was an executive at a game company called The Dreamers Guild, so nepotism got me my first art job. The games industry is like the mob — once you’re in, it’s very hard to leave. I’ve bounced around from company to company ever since. In the background, I’ve tinkered with story ideas for comics and even made a couple of ill-fated attempts, but I’ve always been hobbled by time constraints. It was a book of Hayao Miyazaki storyboards that finally prompted me to quit my most recent game job. Those storyboards demonstrated that one person working alone could bring an entire fantasy world to life, and I realized that if I wanted to attempt something similar, I’d better get cracking. I mean, I’m no spring chicken.
On top of that, the tools that made Nonplayer possible came into existence very recently. For somebody as revision-crazy as I am, digital tools are a godsend. If I’d attempted to draw Nonplayer on paper, I’d have erased clean through the page. Now that I have a Wacom Cintiq monitor, which lets me draw directly on the screen, I can undo and redo to my heart’s content. This process slows things down a bit, but I’m happy with the results.
You did things differently in terms of promoting Nonplayer by making the process available online. Could you elaborate more on that, and why you chose to go the e-route instead of directly taking the work to an agent?
In the beginning, the blog was driven by a practical need to swap technical tips with other artists. At the time, I had no illusions about getting the book picked up by a major publisher — my plan was to self-publish through a print-on-demand company. I envisioned print runs in the hundreds. As the blog progressed, I found that I worked harder and faster when it felt like there was an audience, even when that audience could be counted on two hands. It was only after my blog got mentioned on a couple of much more prominent sites that it started to have some promotional value.
Something I hadn’t anticipated was the value of sharing the emotional ups and downs of creating a comic. Besides being personally therapeutic, I think it helped put a human face on the project. When people saw Nonplayer on shelves, it fit into a whole year-long narrative, and by buying it they could become participants in an unfolding story. Ironically, in the early days of the blog I felt a little guilty about putting my personal doubts out there for strangers to read, but that openness turned out to be a good thing in the end.
My blog never went viral — it grew slowly enough that I was able to get to know all the commenters and their work on a very personal level. Over the course of the year, that small but enthusiastic family of artists generated enough buzz to grab the attention of publishers and journalists.
While you’ve been interviewed by quite a few publications specializing in comics, most of our readers might not have picked up a comic book since they were children. What do you think is the appeal of the format, more specifically for adults?
Well, I can certainly attest to the appeal from a creator’s standpoint: it’s just about the biggest, most elaborate thing that a single person can create. There’s something very intoxicating about encountering an undistilled vision of another place. Text-only novels are wonderful, of course, but images have a visceral authority that’s hard to beat. Here is a whole world. It exists. I can show it to you. I think we love movies for the same reason. But until digital movie-making tools become exponentially cheaper and more user-friendly, comics will remain the only way for you to make a blockbuster in your living room.
There is this preconceived notion out there that comic book die-hard fans are incredibly intense. Have you gotten any death threats yet, or emails pleading you to quickly write the rest of Dana’s adventures or else? A really sweet message from a reader will do as well!
Yes, there are certainly some intense people out there, and the internet can sometimes amplify that intensity to scary levels. Especially because Nonplayer is a slowly-drawn comic, I’ve encountered a lot of frustrated readers who feel betrayed that the comic isn’t monthly. There’s a lot of condescending chiding, a lot of advice that boils down to “you should draw faster.” But then I also get mail from little kids who want to share their hand-drawn comics with me, and that’s just about the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced. On balance, I think the good outweighs the bad.
I have to ask. What can you tell us about Warner Bros’ purchasing of the rights for Nonplayer? (your involvement, how it happened, what is to come…)
It’s very early going right now — we’ve only just started talking to writers, which is the first of several thousand steps. So far, my experience of the producers has been surprisingly un-Hollywood. They seem to want to preserve the spirit of the comic, and they’ve gone out of their way to keep me in the creative loop so far. This may be unusual within the studio system — Heyday Films was founded by the producer of the Harry Potter films, and I get the feeling that they have an uncommon faith in the intelligence of their audience. I’ve heard enough horror stories about film adaptations to take everything with a grain of salt, but from my current vantage point, I think the Nonplayer movie is in very good hands.
Which actress can you imagine play Dana? Apart from Meryl Streep, of course.
Meryl’s out already? Wow, okay. So who does that leave? Well, since I’ve started watching Dr. Who, I’ve been very bullish on Karen Gillan. But just in case it isn’t clear that I have no actual influence over this decision, allow me to restate that I have no influence over this decision. Readers of the comic have also suggested Emma Watson and Felicia Day, both of whom would make great Danas, as well.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
Give Nonplayer a try! You can order signed copies of the first issue directly from my online store, or you can get a digital copy through comiXology. I should add that because the comic was created on a computer, the iPad version really pops. I’ve encountered a few non-comic readers who really enjoyed the first issue, so if you’re new to the medium, Nonplayer might be a good way to get your feet wet.