Possibilities and Consequences in Sci-Fi and Life
PM: You do such a good job in the series of making it entertaining to find out that information while avoiding the dreaded expositional downloads.
TM: I was talking to a writer the other day, and he said, “Gosh, I’ve got so much research data on this book I’m writing,” and I said, “Be sure not to put it in your book.” Because, you know, it’s already written down somewhere else and we don’t need to you to write it down again. All you need from research data anyway is just a few words—the right words—and it implies everything to the reader, especially the knowledgeable reader, without boring them with it.
PM: Speaking of that oppositional, us-v.-them way of thinking, you’ve reminded me of how in high school literature classes it was pounded into our brains that a major theme of literature is “man v. nature”. That shows up so much in Western culture. What we’re talking about in Echo reminds me of some Eastern comics, religion and philosophy, where it’s less about battling nature than it is finding balance. Were those influences?
TM: Yes. Maybe the older you get the more aware you become of the earth you live on and how it allows you to live. Man against nature is not good. That’s barbaric. Man in harmony with nature is capable of tremendous things.
The original stories were about dealing with the elements of the life that we lived in. Nobody could understand the yellow thing in the sky during the day and the darkness at night—it just didn’t make sense. So the stories developed. And I’m really doing the same thing. In Echo I’m writing about a scientific night, and somebody grabbing the moon and riding it. It’s no different than the original stories.
PM: You write in the final issue, “So the woman smote the darkness with the light that was perfect and the darkness receded.” That woman being Annie, via Julie. The symbiosis between the two, which remains at the end of Echo, seems to be the epitome of man in harmony with nature, even if, as Julie and Ivy admit to each other, we don’t understand how the world works.
TM: I guess my point is harmony and truth exist whether you understand them or not. The truth doesn’t need our faith, it just is. It doesn’t care if we know it or believe it, it just is, with us or without us.
Same with harmony. It happens whether we’re on board or not, like a law of physics. The planet doesn’t care if you believe in gravity. Bees don’t care if you understand pollination. It’s up to us to be in step with nature and search for truth. Sometimes we just stumble onto truth and have no idea what to do with it. That’s the story in Echo.
Strangers in Paradise
PM: I feel a lot of identification with the way you present religion and spirituality in Strangers in Paradise and Echo. I consider myself spiritual, but there are so many divisions in religion that it becomes unsatisfying to me.
TM: I saw a bumper sticker this week that said, “I like God, I just can’t stand his fans.” When you consider something like God, you have to get out of the trenches and ignore things like mankind and all the nasty baggage we bring to the issue. The question is about God, not about mankind and how he suffers. Same thing with science. You have to focus on the problem and sort through the distractions, strip them away until you get the pure, unadulterated query. Only then do you know what you’re dealing with.
So many of our great debates are just two sides arguing about two different things. There’s no resolution in that. I’m afraid it’s only human to support things that support you. That’s comfy, but it’s not how you find the empirical truth about things. Scientists and philosophers have to look beyond comfy. They need to know the truth. Sometimes they find it. Echo is about the scientific quest, and the unexpected link it reveals to the soul.
PM: Foster and the military characters in the book, they’re so hell-bent on testing out the phi project, so reckless and unconcerned. Foster even says they’re “playing chicken with nature”. How do they get to that point of being so reckless?
TM: That’s all Oppenheimer and his famous answer to that question. People asked him after the first atomic bomb test, “How could you make such a thing?” He said, “We were more excited about the possibilities than the consequences. First you want to see if you can make it work, then you consider what you have done.” And then, of course, he was funded by the military, so they want a weapon.
In Echo, I’m posing that the alloy has clear, powerful benefits to mankind, but the first thing they do with it is build a weapon. That’s what they did with atomic energy. I’m sure they discussed many possibilities for atomic energy before 1945, but what they really wanted to know was how to ignite the shit and sink a continent.
PM: Had you been following the development of the Cern collider for awhile? Is that part of what got you interested in this storyline?
TM: Oh yeah. I’ve been watching that since they started it years and years ago. I guess that’s always been in the back of my mind. And I remember when the China syndrome was on everybody’s mind. It doesn’t take much imagination to think, “What if you mate the China syndrome with a collider?”
PM: We just keep giving ourselves these new tests.
TM: It’s ironic, as we’re talking about this, today’s headline on CNN.com was about the extreme risks involved in extreme technology, that between the Gulf oil spill and the Japanese meltdown, we make these problems that we cannot stop or prevent. At least there’s some public consciousness about going faster, thinking we can control it, and not being able to. Echo is a Twilight Zone version of all that.
PM: That’s the thing about sci-fi, it puts these themes into an entertaining story and gets people to think about them.
TM: Well, it gives you a chance to form an opinion with a fictional preview, and then when you see the real thing, hopefully it doesn’t catch you mentally unprepared. You have “considered” the problem. That’s good sci-fi. Like Star Trek prepared us all for cell phones and Tribbles, now known as Shi-Tzus.
PM: At the end of Echo, there is a resolution to Ivy’s age regression in terms of her body getting younger and Julie’s body getting larger, but it’s not explained in detail.
TM: I liked wondering about that all the way up to issue 30. It was fun to have questions in the story. Like, what’s in the box.
PM: Even at the end we’re not certain about that, but I have an idea.
TM: What do you think is in the box?
PM: Well, the implication is that it’s something that really turned off her husband. I figured it was a vibrator, or a sex toy. I was intrigued that such a small thing would make her husband want a divorce. But I wouldn’t put money on that.
TM: Neil Gaiman once said, “It’s the mystery that endures, not the answers.” So blame him if I never tell you what’s in Julie’s box because if I tell you, the discussion is over. If I don’t tell you, you’ll wonder about it the rest of your life. Heh heh.
PM: Hickman’s got a mysterious box in some recent issues of Secret Warriors.
TM: Oh, you’re kidding. Everybody’s got a box now! (laughs) Okay, I’m gonna go with a John Lennon answer and say it’s full of holes. Julie’s box is full of holes, like the Albert Hall.
PM: We’ll leave it at that, then. Parts of Echo are pretty gory, more than we saw in SiP. I’m thinking of Cain’s first killing, the way the panels are constructed. But overall your style isn’t exploitative, doesn’t try to make it beautiful like Tarantino or Zack Snyder might do, or maybe Todd McFarlane. When you get to that kind of moment in a story, what’s your approach to drawing violence?
TM: I want to be accurate and to have the aftermath of a scene look correct. I want to show the consequences of our violent actions. Some of it is an offshoot of my training as an artist, studying a lot of forensic material in order to know what’s under the skin and how it all works. It’s all in my head, what’s inside the human balloon and what happens if you pop it. Sometimes the boy in me wants to pop it, just so I can draw it popping. But the writer in me runs up and points out the humanity of it all.
But I also wanted an element of real danger in the story. I wanted you to have the same sort of fear that you might have in a war, that just because we’re in the lead group doesn’t mean we’re safe; the guy beside you could drop at any minute. When I’m drawing my stories, I think of them as a film. I think what would this look like, how would they shoot this, how do I frame the camera shot on this? I don’t wonder what other comic artists would do, I wonder what a great director would do.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.