Entering Uncharted Territory
Matt Medney is the CEO of Heavy Metal but he also happens to be a writer of sci-fi. His new sci-fi series, Dark Wing, starts in Heavy Metal 300 which launches this month. Tripwire’s editor-in-chief Joel Meadows spoke to him to find out more about it…
TRIPWIRE: So what was the genesis of Dark Wing?
MATT MEDNEY: So before Dark Wing I had started writing a massive novel called Beyond Kuiper with one of my best friends who’s an aerospace engineer called John Connelly. The novel comes out in November of this year worldwide. Barnes & Noble’s picking it up and it looks like Target’s picking it up. Inside the world of the novel, you have something called the Galactic Star Alliance which is the known worlds within the alliance that operate within the galaxy. But outside of those places you have an area of space called the distant zones which is like uncharted Star Trek Sector D. So as we were writing that out, I thought ‘What’s happening in the distant zones? What would be a cool story of exploration?’
So Beyond Kuiper is action-packed sci-fi with the best parts of Gene Roddenberry’s use of current events as a microcosm through alien interaction to educate people on why certain points of views might be needed to be reexamined. In a similar way, I always thought that Star Trek: The Next Generation was such an amazing concept of searching the stars for an answer for something you don’t have the question for.
So on one of my tours about three years ago we were in Las Vegas. I remember this vividly, and we’re doing a show at the Palms at their club called Chaos. I was on stage and part of my job was the production so any time you saw any pyrotechnics, confetti, CO2 and lights was coordinated by me. I was just thinking through some of the stuff for Beyond Kulper and it just hit me:“Holy shit I need to have a flying planet that’s a spaceship in the distant zones.” And I just started writing with my thumbs on my phone in the middle of the show and I wrote four pages of lore during the show. And that was the impetus for it.
And the whole idea is that our captain, Benedict Gunn, is tasked with finding a new solar system for the planet. This is millennia in the future from when their planet got flung out by a rogue black hole. They built this ship around their planet and our captain Gunn has been searching stars but underlying this is the fact that he never really wants the adventure to end. There’s other people in the world like Dorfu and BB Quest and there’s also a faction of people that really want to find that new world. So at the heart of the story is the idea that you shouldn’t forget what you have now for what you may have in the future. So everyone is searching for the solar system to settle down in but you have our main protagonist saying “But look at what we’re able to do and nobody else is able to do this. So why do we want to do what they want to do?” It’s the difference between being a leader and a sheep. There’s a lot of motifs within the narrative including just how do you reconcile with yourself when you have these amazing assets at your disposal and how do you use them? All of that is dressed up into fantastical science fiction, explosions, planets and asteroids.
TW: So is it basically about trying to live in the moment? To appreciate what’s happening in the moment rather than trying to make plans for what could happen depending on a certain number of things happening?
MM: That is 100% one of the core underlying messages that I want people to subliminally get because with a lot of the things that I try to write I like the idea that the main story of what you’re actually reading is unadventurous, high sci-fi. I have tried to write non sci-fi stuff and it just doesn’t vibe for me. I definitely will never write anything in the horror sector. I’ve written a few things in fantasy but whenever I do it I think: ‘How does this compare to Lord Of The Rings’ and I usually take my flamethrower and burn whatever I wrote. So the undertone on Darkwing when you strip back the planet ship and the action of it is to realise the moment. It’s just as important as the end.
TW: So how did German Ponce come on board as artist?
MM: German is incredibly talented and part of what I guess is the advantage of being the CEO of Heavy Metal is I have an incredible team of editors like Joseph Illidge, Ricardo Llarena, Frank Forte and the whole team. Even though I am American, my background is very South American and Egyptian. I have Egyptian blood and I also have dual Brazilian citizenship and Ricardo and I connected very deeply on the Latin American roots. When I showed Riccardo the script for Dark Wing he said that he had a couple of artists that he thought would really fit the project. So he sent me about four and German just stuck out. So I just thought ‘Wow this is Dark Wing.’ And then we connected on it and went back and forth on some iterations and some designs and when he showed me his visualisations of the Dark Wing I just thought ‘My God.’
TW: There’s obviously a huge Latin American and South American comic scene. You’ve got people like Eduardo Risso and Rafael Albuquerque. You’ve got some phenomenal artists who are doing some amazing work and they come from a very interesting perspective because obviously they’re big fans of the American stuff but also of the European comics so their work is like a fusion of the two different schools?
MM: You couldn’t have said it better. What blows my mind the most about German is that he does everything by hand. He hand draws it and then erases and redraws over if there’s an error. When he did that the first time with the original piece he sent in I was blown away. We spent two months refining everything. German’s work is just really dynamic and it looks unbelievable in black and white. Our colourist, Protobunker is great too. But I’ve written a bunch of comic books for my other company, Hero Projects. Before I was at Heavy Metal, I ran Hero Projects. It’s still alive and well and now it’s a subsidiary of Heavy Metal.
Hero Projects is a boutique custom comic book company and we design and produce comics for the biggest names in music. Some of the big names that we’ve done comic books for including the rock band 311, Shaggy, ASAP Ferg, Migos, Future and Live Nation. They’re over there but we do conceptual design for them as well. They have this festival in Los Angeles called Project Z, which is a battle between two types of dance music. We write the comic book that leads up to that battle and they thought it would be cool to have a cereal bar and instead of snacks, they wanted to sell bowls of cereal there. So we designed our own cereal called Rolling Loud Flakes and Loud Os and then we designed the boxes. So I wrote those comic books with my partner at that company but my partners mostly found the artists, the project management and while I obviously have a kinship for those stories, those stories were written for a very specific purpose. Whereas with Darkwing, which is the first comic or graphic novel that I’ve conceived, written and produced on my own, it is really incredible all of the key pieces that the team mates on the field need to execute to make it something worthy of talking to you about. From Riccardo’s ability to read a script and then visualise who in his network is the right person to draw it and that person actually delivering and all of those things is just really incredible.
TW: You must enjoy juggling lots of different projects at the same time as you’re CEO of Heavy Metal and you run the other company and you’ve been writing this as well. Are you very good at time management?
MM: I guess so. So right now, I currently have three graphic novels that are in production. I have two novels, one is done and one is 170 pages in. I run both companies as you said and I also write a few shorts as well that can be adapted into podcasts. So there’s a lot of things on my plate and I always like to preach this because I feel too many people in positions like mine who love to say ‘I don’t sleep and I just work all the time and that’s how you get there.’ But I always like to say: ‘No I sleep eight and a half to ten hours every night and I am extremely well-rested so that I can be as efficient as possible when I’m up.’ I think it is unfair to the next generation of people trying to get to where we are for them to think that they have to work themselves to death. And it’s more about being really specific about how you use your time while you’re awake and not about expanding that amount of time.
TW: So this is a a ten part serial so is it 14 pages per episode ?
MM: I think they’re just going to be 16 pages each. The final count is between 160 and 172 pages for the full graphic novel and they stay pretty linear. The way that I write the story is that I write it in five parts and then in each of those parts I figure out what the right break point is.
TW: Do you write it full script? Do you write it DC style ?
MM: David Erwin and I will have a fun friendly battle on this but I am vehemently against writing scripts in comic book form. That is not my jazz. I write it in a final draft ready for TV and I guess it comes from the fact that I started writing novels before anything else. I have a Bluetooth typewriter that I hook up my iPad to. I write on that and I channel my inner Ernest Hemingway when I write. I have always thought that my novels were front to back my interpretation and my control of how the reader is going to enter the world whereas with a graphic novel I want it to be more of a collaboration with the artist. It definitely takes a lot more frontloading and collaborating with the artists to get on that same wavelength. But once you do, at least for me and German, it’s been super smooth. There’s minimal edits and now that he understands that flow that we like. I give him the final draft pages and he send back roughs and they’re always pretty much 95 or 100 per cent right the first time.
TW: So this is kicking off in a high profile issue of Heavy Metal. So obviously that’s very exciting but is it a little bit daunting as well? Because it’s starting in this reboot of the magazine in a way?
MM: 100 per cent. We have stories in here by Corben, by Moebius, by Liberatore. We have new stuff coming in from Blake Northcott who’s a current writer of Catwoman and Brendan Columbus, Chris Columbus’ son who is an incredibly talented writer. We relaunch Taarna in this issue and we are very deliberate about the types of stories, making sure that those are equally dispersed across the magazine. So there really isn’t another Star Wars style sci-fi adventure in the book.
TW: So it’s about having a diverse range of material, a cross-section of different stories and strips ?
MM: Exactly and to your point this is the one that talks about adventure and space travel, it is a little nerve-wracking to make sure that I really hit it. It is also very comforting to know that a piece of my work only needs to be 1000 words whereas with my novel we’re doing the final grammar check right now, and it’s 97000 words. That is extraordinarily stressful because there is nothing more nerve-wracking to me than fulfilling a Barnes & Noble PO and finding out that there’s an issue in the book. But with this we don’t have that so some of the fear is quelled by my other fears of longer form writing.
TW: Obviously it’s broken up into chapters. Were there any problems for you as a writer? Obviously it’s coming out as a single volume after it runs in Heavy Metal but how did you find breaking it up so there were natural breaks for each chapter?
MM: I think it helped because I didn’t start writing the script until I knew I wanted to put it into the magazine. I wrote it from the point of view of knowing that I needed to have those lifelines and have those beats to make sure that it went on the correct rollercoaster throughout. Also after writing my novels, I write in chapters so it’s pretty easy for me to identify what the short-term arc is for a chapter while making sure I weave in the overarching arc for the entire series. I tried to write it in as five parts and then with each part, I find that sweet spot in to turn that into two chapters.
TW: You said you collaborated quite closely with German and you said you’re now at the stage where you’re comfortable and he knows what you want from each chapter. So you send it in, he sends you page roughs and you’re happy with them so the workflow is very smooth presumably?
MM: Actually I should correct myself. German is very interesting and he doesn’t actually send roughs. His roughs are his pencils, so he goes straight to pencils so as I eluded to before if there’s an issue with a panel, he’ll just erase it and redraw the pencil and then go into inks.
TW: So you worked in music and then moved over to this. What are the transferable skills?
MM: I would say it’s actually very parallel just in different mediums. With music my job was to interpret the band or the DJ’s songs so we were in production. So all the fire, the fireworks, the Co2, the confetti, the LEDs and the visuals. All of that is controlled and directed by me. We obviously had an operator for the visuals but I had to design it and make sure that it complimented the show. Those skills are honestly the same skills that I used when taking my script and making sure that that production from script to visualisation was tight, on time and done in a professional way and even though they’re different mediums and disciplines, the skills of how to project manage that and to work with other creatives to a final and singular goal of this vision is very similar.
TW: Is Darkwing a self-contained story ? Do we go in and the story gets resolved or is it left open for future adventures with the characters?
MM: You’re going to have to read it to find out…
TW: Without giving anything away?
MM: I was just being coy. The Darkwing characters are definitely not one and done characters. They live as I said in the overarching universe of Beyond Kulper and they will eventually at some point collide. So those two worlds at some point down the line interact with each other. There’s subtle points in this story and in Kulper the novel where there are nods to each of the worlds. One of our explorers named Tordoc in the novel tells one of our other aliens that he was in the distant zones and he was tracking a planetary ship. So we do little nods like that. But Darkwing the collection of these ten serials is definitely one of many. The resolution at the end of issue 10 will resolve this arc but it will also open a litany of questions that any reader who is enjoying the story and the characters and the path will want answers.
TW: So from what you’re saying, this is a space opera like the Alfred Bester with AE Van Vogt with a bit of Star Wars thrown in. Is that a fair comment?
MM: You nailed it on the head there but if you just sprinkle in a little Star Trek too, the mission-based part of Star Trek where they start interacting with other species to learn about other cultures. That is more to come probably in volume two but that is part of the world I will be setting up: this expansive ability for our characters within the Darkwing to see life on the other side. That goes back to that initial statement – don’t forget about what you have now – but we will have that paradoxical exchange between citizens that live on the Darkwing and then meeting citizens that live in a typical solar system and what each of their qualms are and how they play off against each other.
TW: Why is science fiction such an effective way of talking about real-world problems through the prism of big space ships and people shooting at each other with big guns?
MM: It’s a great question. I would say for me, I always go back to the thing that got me to feel that way was original Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry and you have Kirk talking to the left black and right white and left white and right black faced clans and they do not know how to interact with each other. So Kirk is this third party human who is a social justice warrior for a lack of a better term in this situation showing how they could co-exist and how they could learn from each other during the Civil Rights movement. Obviously I wasn’t alive then but when I went back and watched that I understood how Gene used that as a narrative to defuse what was a very tense global situation. With science-fiction I realised if you were moved, if you use the humans as a perpertrator and used the aliens as a test subject it is easier for a human to grasp the concepts of what you are trying to show.
Darkwing starts in Heavy Metal 300 out from 12 August