Kickstarter: Interview with The Surgeon’s John Pence

The internet is doing that cool thing where a bunch of fans chip in to make art a reality. This month sees The Surgeon, a big ol’ adventure comic that combines, “American myth, postapocalyptic Western, ronin samurai tale, and the lingering hungover tinnitus of rock n’ roll!” It is currently funded and looking to hit some stretch goals, so if you feel so inclined, head on over to the Kickstarter page and take a look.

Meanwhile, I got the chance to talk with John Pence, the author of The Surgeon, on world building, writing, and working with artists. Keep reading, you know, if you feel so inclined.

WeTheNerdy: The Post-apocalyptic narrative is feeling pretty crowded these days. How do you go about writing something new in a genre that’s some kind of old?

John Pence: I don’t worry about trying to be fresh in the blank-page writing process. It’s actually pretty consuming for me, and I lose a lot of sleep and don’t pay attention to the world around me. Writing is intense and immersive; I’m not entirely in control of the process. So that’s not the time when I try to be objective and compare the new work to the body of material that’s out there. I do try to avoid any contact with stuff that might be similar during that time when I’m actually composing, but aside from that, I just let the story take care of itself.

Now, that sounds really cool and artistic and secure, but the truth is that as soon as I get a first draft finished, then, yeah, I go in search of anything that might be similar. And now I worry a lot, and I’m insecure, and I feel like everything I see makes the new stuff feel derivative. If I find anything in the new material that truly isn’t fresh, I try to figure out how to make it more so. Cut, revise, reimagine. Believe me, the last thing I want is to feel stale.

This is a slow process, too. I wrote all five chapters of this story arc before Fury Road even started advertising. So, “I was into the apocalypse before it was cool (again.)”

WTN: So when that bombshell of Mad Max: Fury Road hit, what did you do? Is there a version of The Surgeon out there that’s completely different than the one we got?

JP: Ah, luckily, no. The cool thing was that the book was different enough in the first place that I could leave it alone. I admit I was worried enough that I put off watching the movie for a long time, but everything was cool. What a relief! I loved the movie, and I love this book, and they’re not much alike at all in the long run.

WTN: You guys are doing a really cool job combining the current technology with the no technology. I love the Craigslist tower of information. Are we going to see more of that going forward? What’s the criteria when it comes to looking at a website/piece of technology/memetic thing in our culture and warping it for a place that’s gone back a few decades due to the end of the world?

JP: Thanks! I love this kind of question. So, “writing” isn’t all typing, right? I’ll be thinking through how a person or a situation in the story gets from point A to point B, and then there’s the middle bit about how. That’s where questions like this one about technology come up. It takes a lot of coffee, a lot of looking out the window, a lot of daydreaming to finish some of those pages, paragraphs, even sentences where I have to fill in the gaps.I guess it all just comes down to the effort I’m willing to invest in world-building, and I’m willing to go deep.

WTN: I really like how you world build in The Surgeon. I’ve talked to writers before, and it can seem like a love-it or hate-it kind of thing. Where do you fall? Do you find it easier or harder when confined to the “real world,” so to speak?

JP: Yeah, thanks again. I like it just fine, but it’s really necessary. Once that foundation of “where do they live and what is it like” is laid, and once I know who the characters are, I can just turn them all loose in my brain and the pages just happen.

I have to treat it like a three-year-old who is constantly asking questions. Why did the world fall apart? Who’s still around? What do they have? What do they need?

I had a ton of engineering, anatomy, and kung fu training books open on my desk, a ton of web browsers open on any day. I emailed with martial arts folks, medical folks, engineers … like I said, I get kinda caught up in something like this. I have to know the details myself, even if they don’t all make it into the story.

WTN: One of the cool worldly aspects to The Surgeon is that we’re not far into the apocalypse. Places still remember why it happened–typically we’re far removed from that. How does that change how you approach a post-apocalyptic narrative, with the wounds being fresh, so to speak?

JP: But really, the fact that civilization has fallen apart in this story is just a matter of setting; ultimately it’s a way to strip away some layers so the characters can be really raw and primal, really true to who they are. You’d see the same anarchic rawness in a lot of straight-up Westerns, too, so those Wild West influences are also in there. But after all’s said and done, it’s all just a stage for the characters to act on, all just a way to tell the story.

WTN: Congrats on getting funded on Kickstarter! Kickstarter hit the Internet hard as a place to fund indie video games, but as time has moved on, it’s gotten harder and harder for deeply indie game studios to get their projects funded. However, it seems to be a growing haven for comic books. (Wethenerdy gets its fair share of interview/review opportunities.) Why do you think that is? Do you think it’ll continue to be that way or fall off like video games have done?

Laurie: Thank you!! This is an interesting question. I think that indie comics will always find a home on Kickstarter. Because of the way the comic industry is currently set up, with Diamond basically being the only distributor out there, if you don’t go with them, you’re on your own. Kickstarter lets people who want comic books easily preorder them directly from the company, quickly and efficiently. It allows readers to find new and awesome independently-published books without slogging through a Previews catalog. And it allows creators to spread the word about their comic in a world where Facebook makes you PAY for people to see posts at all! I don’t see it becoming obsolete for comics anytime soon.

I’m not entirely sure why games aren’t doing as well anymore. I have noticed in the recent past that some indie companies are kind of ruining it for the rest with: 1) Endless production delays. 2) Lack of delivery of games at all, let alone on time. 3) Overhyping their game so hard and disappointing fans when the reality sets in. 4) Stretching themselves way too thin with rewards to get people excited, and then falling short. Perhaps there is a trust there that needs to be built back up.

Additionally, games nowadays require relatively large budgets to impress the gaming fan, and bringing together the amount of backers required to hit those goals is a MONUMENTAL effort. We can pay a team to make AND print a comic for under 8k. Getting a really good game together that people will buy and play…you’re USUALLY looking at 40k+.

Food for thought!

WTN: “…The lingering hungover tinnitus of rock n’ roll” is an excellent tagline for a book, because I loves me some rock n roll! Could you maybe give us some hints on what’s in store? I know there’s a bit of a rock band in the first issue, but will music make its way into the story proper?

JP I listen to music when I’m writing. It’s usually loud and usually pretty rockin’. The moods of all the scenes have their own soundtracks, at least in my mind, and I play the music for those scenes as I write them. It’s hard for music to really come out in a comic, but it is definitely a part of the world, you know? How miserable would the fall of civilization be without some tunes?

WTN: Comic books are an interesting kind of collaborative effort in that the script/designs are usually created by an author and executed by an artist (some exceptions apply see store for details). How much did Zachary, Eve, and Laurie effect The Surgeon when it came to executing the script? Were there any changes from start to finish that went unplanned?

John Pence: It’s very much a jam session. I’ve known Zack a while now, and I trust him to add stuff and take it away if he feels like it’ll make a better page, a better page-spread, or just make the story move better. I give a ton of detail in my pages, and he uses what he thinks is valuable.

Laurie’s inks have such cool, subtle levels of detail that affect mood and satisfy folks who want to zoom in to max resolution and get lost in the spider webs and crumbs and all the little things that Zack pencils everywhere. A lot of the pages are like those puzzles from Highlights magazine, when we were kids, where you try to find all the hidden images. There’s tons of stuff going on in the background, and if you go looking for treasures, you’ll find them.

Eve doesn’t even read the script until the book is finished. He just uses the Force and colors stuff the way he feels it. We do tell him what the weather is like and what color some things have to be, but aside from that, he’s a mad scientist cooking up smoke, fire, blood, rain, sunshine, clouds, and candlelight wherever he feels like it, and whatever he does, it works!

So, yeah, there were tons of little changes from the script to the finished page. That’s the way it should be when you work with a team. I think it’s alchemy, man. Somehow the whole ends up greater than the sum of its parts.

WTN: Eve sounds like a crazy person, but in that good kind of artsy way where things just explode into being done. What’s it like working with that kind of person? How do you build that kind of relationship, where you can be confident it’ll get done the perfect way with almost no queues or feedback?

JP: You know what Eve is? He’s good at his job! But the whole team has a good system of feedback in place where we all review each other’s work and make changes accordingly. Nobody gets bent out of shape because we all want the work to be the best it can be. I think that just being motivated by quality, we’ve gelled really well as a team. So while Eve has his no-script-reading peculiarity, it’s no big deal. I just think it’s funny, so I have to give him a hard time about it, but it doesn’t interfere with the work at all.


And there we have it. As mentioned above, if this sounds like something you would enjoy, do check out the Kickstarter page. For the curious, I’ll have a review of The Surgeon up next week Monday, 11-6-2017.