“We all have regrets,” says author Stephen Graham Jones. “We all haven’t killed people and done hugely terrible things, but maybe we didn’t tip well enough at a restaurant, and we wish we could go back and tip 22 percent instead of 20 percent.”
Jones might sound lighthearted thinking about his dining regrets, but with his latest project – the ongoing comic book series Earthdivers – he takes on far more serious topics. The series, which begins a century into a postapocalyptic future, follows a group of Indigenous people who use time travel to try to stop the creation of the United States of America, beginning with a plan to assassinate Christopher Columbus. Jones uses the science-fiction adventure to raise questions about environmental concerns, colonialism, moral philosophy, and more. The series has the elements of a good slasher, but “utilitarianism does come up”.
“It starts in 2112, and the world is falling apart ecologically,” Jones explains. “The environment’s collapsing. If I were to boil it down to a single point, it would be: I want the reader to come away from Earthdivers thinking maybe we should take better care of this place because we gotta live in it, which is basically why they’re going back to kill Columbus. If America doesn’t happen, the whole world will be better. We’re not as polluted.”
Even the first few pages of the series raise questions that might bother readers, but the writer doesn’t hesitate to address topics that need to be discussed. “I think it will challenge people who won’t even read the comic but will read the premise,” Jones says. “That’s good. Those are the people that I want to come to. I’m not shy about the issues that Earthdivers may be raising.”
Jones, a professor at the University of Colorado and winner of both the Bram Stoker Award and Ray Bradbury prize, has developed the voice to take on such difficult issues, but he’s doing so in new ways. He contributed a story to Marvel Comics’ Marvel’s Voices: Indigenous Voices #1 anthology (2020). Earthdivers, however, offers new challenges.
“In book publishing, I’m generally working with one person at a time,” he says. “With a comic book, I’ll write a script for number one, say, and we’ll have it down to lettering, and then I’m working on number three with Davide Gianfelice, the artist, and I’ll be having to do corrections on number one. I usually work on two or three issues at a time but at different stages.”
Working with a team has its advantages, too. Jones acknowledges that he won’t “ever have any drawing talent”, so he can turn that over to the artists. Sometimes in his script, he’ll give a page layout, but he lets Gianfelice do whatever he thinks best.
“He has an actual visual imagination,” Jones says. “I know what I like, but as for figuring out the beats of the eye moving across the page and what it’s going to catch on and what needs to be in the background, that’s completely his purview. I consider myself in charge of the narrative.”
Jones also finds some pleasure in the ongoing creative process with a comic. “What I’ve found that’s neat that I can’t do with prose fiction is when the art comes in and is different than or improving upon the script that I wrote. Then I can adjust the captions and the dialogue to match the art, which is fun,” he explains. “I love when Davide draws a panel [in a way that lets me] just erase my words.”
The comic creation process offers its own set of changes, but fans of Jones’ recent work might think he’s shifting not just into a new medium but into a new genre. He writes broadly in speculative fiction, but his horror work has received the most attention, notably his recent novels The Only Good Indians (2020) and My Heart Is a Chainsaw (2021). He says of the former, “I wanted to write a Friday the 13th novel, but Jason’s hockey mask was trademarked.”
“I love that horror can provoke a visceral response from the reader,” Jones says. “While you’re watching it, you have your defenses up. You’re looking for the zipper on the monster costume so you can tell yourself it’s not real. It’s all well and fine until you’re walking down a dark hall and things change. You realize this story has laid dark eggs in your head, and they’re starting to hatch.”
Earthdivers moves more into science fiction territory, but Jones is “really using all the horror tropes that I have anyway.” He’s not new to the genre – see, for example, his short story “Rising Star” for a playful example of his time travel writing – and he reads as much science fiction as he does horror. He describes proper science as his primary nonfiction reading.
“I could have come up with a horror premise that would send someone back,” he says of the new story. That would have made the adventure less of a mission. “I want some people who are intentionally and consciously trying to change the world.”
Part of that change includes understanding what has been lost – to put it euphemistically – in the age of colonialism. “For all American Indians, place has been taken from us, and we want it back,” Jones says. “That’s kind of what this story is doing, trying to get it back.”
The best plans come with complications, and in this case, Jones sees the ethical questions the comic raises as one of its most important takeaways. With the power to go back and change the world, all sorts of issues relating to ends and means arise. “Would you kill Hitler in the crib?” Jones asks. “You’re just killing a baby then. How are you ethically compromised, or how are you a champion if you do that?”
That’s how John Stuart Mill and utilitarianism end up referenced within Earthdivers. The characters have to face moral quandaries and struggle with finding the right path. “Dramatically, this is dealt with,” Jones explains. “The protagonist, in these first issues – that’s his conundrum. He wants only to save the world, but there seems to be all this collateral damage he has to engage in, which he’s not comfortable with. Never mind that they are the people coming to America to spread smallpox and … slavery. These are huge issues for him. They’re probably his driving issues.”
Thinking through these topics within a story is one thing, but understanding their applicability to real-life raises the stakes. Jones might be joking a little when he talks about using time travel to leave a better tip, but he recognizes we all have things we wish we “could go back and undo”. “I think about it daily,” he says, “Why didn’t I do better at that moment?”
That sense of regret, he believes, largely drives our continuing interest in time travel stories. It’s a “fantasy impulse”. At the same time, he notes that “all the time travels [he reads] are cautionary tales.” The message seems to be that we should leave things as they are. That means we need to “do better from here going forward [because] you can’t go back and fix it. That’s not how life works.”
“If I had a one-day time travel pass, hopefully, I would refrain from using it,” Jones continues. “I would mess things up tremendously, which would be another regret that I would have to go back and fix.”
The greater moral question isn’t just about creating more of a mess but about understanding our responsibility now. “If you subscribe to a ‘time travel let’s go back and fix it thing’, then suddenly all your actions in the present don’t have a finality that they used to if everything is fixable,” Jones says.
“Quantum physics and string theory suggest that there are parallel dimensions, that things are a brane away. Mathematically that’s all possible, but morally, we have to shy away from that because if there are 10,000 versions of me right beside me and they all make a slightly different decision, then I’m no longer compelled to make the right decision because one of my other selves is making the right decision and that frees me to do whatever I want to. We should think that we’re the only one even if we’re not.”
At some level, the multiversal ideas in the Doctor Strange and Spider-Man series are “un, but they’re dangerous, as well.” Along with the moral concerns, Jones deals with the “philosophical or metaphysical aspects of” time travel. Doing this sort of story necessitates thoughts about pocket dimensions and the grandfather paradox.
“Writers much smarter than me have knocked out all the difficulties with time travel very well, but I may have stumbled into one or two new things,” Jones says. He gives some insight into his thinking by adding, “In time travel stories, history or fate is always kind of elastic. There’s also a question of What if it doesn’t want to stretch? What if it pushes back against people tampering with it? Not necessarily time cops, but what if it doesn’t want to change once the timeline has solidified?”
To actualize these ideas, asking who he is writing for can be helpful. “With Earthdivers, when I imagine the ideal reader, it’s no longer me,” he explains. “Who I imagine are my comic book heroes, who would be like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Alison Bechdel, Art Spiegelman. Can you imagine Spiegelman reading this stuff? It makes me be better and better. When I imagine myself as a reader, I can do all these in-jokes – it’s almost like I’m talking in code to myself, but that doesn’t let anybody else into that circle of communication. I think I do a lot better work when I imagine someone else as a reader.”
In Gaiman’s work, Jones finds an admirable “lightness of delivery paired with a substance of depth, which I’m really fascinated by and jealous of as well,” he says. “Sandman is staggeringly good,” he says of Gaiman’s original comic series. “What I love about his Sandman series is how he seems to have it all thought out. Even when Neil Gaiman does horror, he’s still building on a fantasy scaffolding, and you know if you pull this lever, the light turns on.”
“There’s a system behind the world that makes everything make sense, and when you read Neil Gaiman’s stuff, I’m aware of that system, which makes me feel, as a reader, that I’m in good hands. At the same time, my favorite kind of horror is the horror I read where the rules are off and where I’m in unsafe hands. As far as fantasy goes, Neil Gaiman is amazing. I can learn so much from him; he does really good horror, too.”
Earthdivers also delivers considerable historical realism. Jones needed more research for this series than he’d ever done for a story. “I had to go back and watch a lot of documentaries and read a lot of stuff on [Columbus’] expedition,” he says. “I’m making most of the characters up, but to get the calendar, the dates, the key moments down. It was a challenge to make the dramatic line of the story, those little tensions, those peaks and valleys – it was hard to make those match up with the actual things that happened on the voyage. When they saw this bird and this other thing in the water.”
While he worked to maintain historical accuracy in Earthdivers, that side of the project turned out to have a different influence than you might expect.
“I don’t know if ‘liberating’ is the right word, but it gave me fuel,” Jones says. “Sometimes, when I was at odds for what’s going to happen next, I could look at the dates for when a storm happened in Columbus’ reconstructed log, and I could figure it out so much easier. I didn’t have a mythic framework, but I had a historical framework. You’d think it would be restricting, but it was kind of generative.”
The process also has a weird personal side to it. “Going back to 1492 and being on La Niña, La Pinta, and La Santa María was weird for me, being an American Indian,” he said. “It was weird to be on those decks watching the Atlantic go past.”
Jones has more ideas for historical projects set in the late 19th century, but he doesn’t expect to do such deep historical work again. He mentions E.L. Doctorow‘s Ragtime (1975) and Don DeLillo‘s Libra (1988) as novels that “ either requires feet on the ground or a two-year stint in the stacks of the library. That’s two years I could write 16 other things,” he laughs.
He adds, “Part of it could be fear. Two crowds draw on details: historical fans and spy fans. If you say you were in Istanbul and stood on a balcony and fired a rifle at a porch across the way, they’ll get a laser sight and figure out if that’s possible. Historical people are just the same. I’m not sure I’m rigorous enough to get all those details exactly right.”
Comic fans are equally fussy about their details, picking over minutiae to ensure the story’s reality holds together. For Jones, that’s not an intimidating aspect of the work but an exciting and encouraging part. “When people are sifting through the smallest little details of your work like that…you might not get it all right, but you gotta be thrilled with the attention, with how much people live in this world.”