Strange Attractors: An Interview with Charles Soule
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Complexity theory saves New York in Strange Attractors.
Charles Soule is up for a challenge, as evidenced by his latest graphic novel Strange Attractors: tackling complexity theory and higher math as a major plot point. It’s a spectacular read, meshing interesting characters, elaborate scientific theories with an unmistakable love of New York City, all without overcomplicating it for readers. Soule is also no stranger to creator owned titles, responsible for the Image series 27, SLG’s Strongman, and the upcoming Letter 44 from Oni Press, out this October. On top of that, he’s taken over writing Swamp Thing after Scott Snyder’s successful run on the series, and is also the new ongoing writer for DC’s Red Lanterns and Thunderbolts for Marvel. Despite having a stack of books to write and promote, Soule sat down with us to discuss his process, what makes Strange Attractors so unique and the difference between creating your own characters and guiding someone else’s.
Comics & Gaming Magazine: How did you come up with the concept for Strange Attractors?
Charles Soule: I had the seed of the idea quite some time ago, probably in 2006/2007. I was living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan at the time, and I was struck by a set of newspaper boxes I saw on a corner – New York Times, USA Today and so on. They’re all different colors, and it occurred to me that it would be interesting to tell a story using the idea that certain people might be able to use those boxes to communicate with each other. The order in which the boxes were arranged
on a day-to-day basis could be a code, of sorts. That idea was used in Strange Attractors in a slightly different way, but that was where it started. From there, I started to think about how the whole city might be used in such a way, like a huge code, or machine, and I was off to the races.
I’ve always loved New York City – I’ve lived there for 16 years, and it’s hard to imagine a denser, more complex place. It’s hard to see how it all actually works, you know? It seems like a machine, like NYC should have crumbled to the ground ages ago, but yet it’s still here. The heart of Strange Attractors is the idea that the reason the city still exists is because of the people who love it. I felt like that was a pretty solid idea to build a story around.
CGM: What is the comic process like, from inception to the actual release of the book?
CS: Well, based on the timeline above, I suppose it was something like six years, but not all of that was spent in active development. I had the story down relatively quickly, but I brought a few other comics projects out first (my SLG series Strongman and Image series 27). I always knew Strange Attractors was going to be a huge project, and I wasn’t wrong. From the beginning of work with the current team to release was about two years. That’s a pretty long development cycle for a 138-page book. Not unheard of, but pretty long.
The first part of creating a graphic novel is scripting, which I did early. This project was complicated enough from a story perspective that I wanted to see if I could write it before I even tried to pitch it anywhere. Once I had something I thought could work, I found an artist, Dan Duncan, to draw one of the key sequences from the book. Dan didn’t end up drawing the whole thing, but we did keep his fantastic cover. I showed that pitch sequence to a few publishers, and Archaia really impressed me with both their passion for this particular book and their incredible production values. Archaia always puts out gorgeous products – their books are just spectacular looking. I knew that Strange Attractors would benefit from a nice presentation, and the final hardcover version is amazing.
I loved working with Archaia! Anyone who’s read this far has probably picked up on that. They’re not a huge company, but they LOVE the books they put out, and their commitment to quality is second to none. There’s a reason they won two Eisner Awards in a row for best graphic novel [ Return of the Dapper Men in 2011 and Tale of Sand in 2012]. They’ve been very good to me, and I hope to do another project with them again some day.
Once I had the deal with Archaia, I assembled the art team, and then it was just that long production cycle I mentioned, where pages were drawn, colored, lettered, etc.
CGM: Did you have a specific artist in mind to collaborate with?
CS: Not at first. I knew I wanted someone who knew the city as well as I did, who would be able to capture the ebb and flow of life here, but beyond that I didn’t have any specific names in mind. I was introduced to Greg Scott by a mutual friend, the writer Nathan Edmondson, and it ended up being a perfect match. Greg lives on Staten Island, and loves New York as much as I do. He wanted to get things right, and I feel like he absolutely did.
CGM: What was it like working with Greg Scott, Robert Saywitz and Art Lyon?
CS: Well, we need to add in Matthew Petz and Thomas Mauer to the mix – Matt helped Art with colors (they each ended up doing about half the book), and Thomas was an absolute champion with the lettering. Strange Attractors was a complex project at every level, and those guys all brought their A games. Robert Saywitz is a Brooklyn-based fine artist who was given the unenviable task of designing the “complexity” maps that feature in the story. The two main characters are both mathematicians, and they create models of the city’s systems using complicated, hand-drawn maps. Robert sat down and figured out what those would look like, and he did a great job. Like I said, everyone brought their A game, including the editor Rebecca Taylor as well as Archaia production, design, PR… fabulous work all around.
CGM: Why New York City?
CS: I love New York, as I’ve mentioned, and I also know it very well. I like to think I understand the rhythms of the city after being here so long, and I wanted to try to convey something of the wonderful (and maddening) complexity of the place. Comics are uniquely suited for that sort of thing. It also doesn’t hurt that New York is featured quite often in pop culture – we see it all the time. So, there’s a resonance there even for people who don’t live here. We all know New York City, to a certain extent.
CGM: Are you a science/math buff? Was there a lot of research involved in writing this series?
CS: I am, and there was. I’m not an expert AT ALL. Complexity theory and higher math are subjects that I like to read about, but that’s about it. For Strange Attractors, I read as much as I could on the subject. I wanted to get the theories right, even if I didn’t have the technical background to create the formulae and so on myself. I think that it works, though – it let me approach the ideas the way a layman would, and that’s the majority of the intended audience. I do like research, though – I like to do the legwork for anything I’m writing. I’m currently writing Swamp Thing for DC Comics, for example, and before that really got started I headed down to Louisiana to spend a few days soaking in the swamp. I mostly just use research as an excuse to take cool trips.
CGM: Can you describe what it’s like to see a personal story like this come to life, e.g. creating your own characters vs. working with an established cast/universe?
CS: There’s nothing like it! This is like raising your own child vs. being a teacher. With creator-owned, you get to bring up your baby, make them as perfect as possible before sending them off into the world. With work-for-hire, you just try to bring your voice to the character for as long as you’re on the book, before they get handed off to the next team. Both great experiences, but very different.
CGM: What are you working on next?
CS: These are busy times, but in a good way. Right now, I’m writing Swamp Thing and Red Lanterns for DC, and Thunderbolts for Marvel. Those are all ongoing, monthly series. I also have an upcoming ongoing series for Oni Press called Letter 44. It’s a sci-fi series about a manned mission to the asteroid belt to investigate what seems to be a construction project up there. It’s sort of like 24 meets 2001, and I’m very excited about it. That starts in October. More creator-owned work is on the way for 2014, but right now I’m just keeping my head down and focusing on getting the word out about Strange Attractors. We’re all very proud of it, and I hope people check it out.
CGM: Anything else you’d like to add?
CS: If you’re interested in Strange Attractors, you can pick it up at your local comic shop, via Amazon or digitally for iPad and so on from Comixology. You can follow me on Twitter for updates on my ongoing work, as well as at my blog or Facebook. Thanks, and see you in the comics!
CGM also has Nicole’s review of Strange Attractors here.