Nick Sagan and Mark Long
Telling the tale of a soldier’s quest to free a colonized Venus from a determined and expanding empire, Nick Sagan and Mark Long’s Shrapnel takes the typically aggrandized science fiction motif and spins it soundly into the realm of feasibility. In many ways a devout and hardcore Sci-Fi story, Shrapnel still maintains a universal appeal thanks to its extremely diverse cast and subtle social allegories.
Having just released the fifth and final issue of the first series, “Aristeia Rising”, series creators Mark Long and Nick Sagan recently took the time to discuss with us their thoughts on how well the first series came together, as well as what readers can expect from the second series, “Hubris”, slated to be released later this year.
Interview by Daniel Crown
With the first series of Shrapnel in the books, I was curious how you guys feel it went. Do you think you accomplished what you set out to do?
Mark Long: Absolutely. Imaginary Friends’ painterly style in particular was really successful. The battle scenes have a terrible beauty that we love. And Zack, because he’s ex-Marine himself, really grounded the combat and tactics.
Nick Sagan: It exceeded my expectations. I’m very happy with it. The hard work put out by so many has been wonderful to see. I’m grateful for everyone’s efforts.
The action sequences of Aristeia Rising are so incredibly large-scale, if you were to have put this story on film it could only really exist with a major studio throwing around hundreds of millions of dollars. How liberating is it to work in a medium that allows you unfettered freedom to do anything you want without worrying about costs?
NS: Liberating is the perfect word for it. I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked in a variety of media: screenplays, teleplays, novels, games, etc., but this is my first foray into graphic novels, and I’m finding it a very enjoyable and rewarding format in which to tell stories. While I genuinely enjoy the challenge of factoring in the economic realities of a studio production budget, it’s freeing not to have to worry about that right now. If it can be drawn, it can be done. And on a personal level, as a lifelong comic book fan, it’s very exciting to see such talented artists render these moments so beautifully.
ML: We both work primarily in mediums where we have to worry about the cost of producing the story constantly. Comics have been a creative reboot for us in many ways because of this freedom. Maybe this is one of the reasons comics have ascended as a medium directors and game designers want to adapt. This freedom produces out of the box thinking that becomes a source of fresh perspective.
One of the unique opportunities inherent in science fiction is the ability to imbue pertinent subjects into otherwise extraordinary events. In a nutshell, Shrapnel works as a worst-case scenario for wealth-class warfare, making it more than applicable to some of the things happening in various headlines across the world. Did you approach the story as an allegory of sorts, or did this just evolve naturally?
NS: The element of wealth-class warfare goes back to Shrapnel’s earliest incarnation, back when I wrote it up as Liberty. Absolutely, one of the things I love about science fiction is how it allows writers to tackle the big issues facing humanity, and raise questions about the path we’re on. To that extent, sure, it’s allegorical, and I’m glad it feels relevant to the challenges we face today, but at the same time it’s important to me that whatever messages Mark and I are sending don’t get in the way of the visceral fun of the story itself. A shining example of that sort of balance is the brilliant Patrick MacGoohan television series, The Prisoner, which I think works perfectly as pure, exciting, escapist entertainment, and yet the deeper one delves into it, the more one finds. That series remains a beacon for me, I’m a bit in awe of it, and hopefully I can continue to learn from it.
What’s interesting is that the Helots, in essence, are stereotyped in much the same way certain ethnic groups are unfairly generalized in our own society– being referred to as “those there to do the jobs no one else wants to do”. How did you come up with the idea to segment the Shrapnel universe according to mental capacity and enhanced cognition as opposed to more traditional races or ethnicities?
ML: I think the idea for the Helots came from a larger goal of wanting our future world to be layered with realistic social and political conflicts.In the future we imagined for Shrapnel, gene enhancement is complex and expensive. Not everyone can afford it. And like the early American colonists, many of our solar colonists are genetic have-nots looking for a new beginning and a better future. Helots are integral to the colonization of Mars, Venus and the Jovian moons. But as the colonies expand and grow rich from trade, Helots are held back by oppressive policies that restrict opportunities. Helots can’t hold certain jobs and in some colonies, can’t marry non-Helots.
The word Helot is ancient Greek. The Helots were the slaves of Sparta. They made Sparta’s martial society possible. But they could own property and have families.
NS: Much as I’d like to believe our society has the capacity to advance to a point where there won’t be an underclass,our history suggests otherwise. Even if we triumph over racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., there seems to be something inherently human about our capacity for taking advantage of those we consider inferior. Even if we realize the dream of colonizing other worlds, we may continue to struggle with the desire to identify with one group of people and demonize another. I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of improving one’s genome, letting science enhance what nature has done-it’s something I explore in my Idlewild trilogy-and Shrapnel is a variation on the theme, with some humans fortunate enough to afford the expense of making their offspring genetic haves while others remain have-nots with fewer options at their disposal.
Easily the strongest aspect to the first Shrapnel series is the extremely complex relationship shared by your principal characters. By partnering Sam, Jammer and Randal, you present a rather poignant encapsulation of diversity done right. The main protagonists’ respective arcs are in essence personal battles to keep their comparatively equitable lifestyle intact. Did you see this dynamic as the real crux of the story from the beginning, or is it more of a byproduct stemming from the epic nature of the plot?
NS: Honestly, I think it’s something of a happy accident. Sometimes you have ideas for characters, but they take you in directions you hadn’t anticipated. Much of the credit for how well this is executed has to go to M. Zachary Sherman. Mark and I had an initial vision for how these characters should interact, but the task of breathing life into them fell primarily upon Zack, and I’m very happy with what he was able to accomplish. As for diversity, that’s something that was important to us from the onset; far too often in science fiction we see futures that don’t reflect the demographics of today, much less what they’re likely to be hundreds of years from now.
Through the turmoil of the Venutian uprising, it comes to light that your core group of heroes sport extremely conflicting pasts and agendas. The protagonists are nearly as flawed as the villains, they just happen to reside on the opposite side of an ideological line. Do you prefer your heroes to wear grey hats? Is the day of the traditional hero over with?
NS: Well, speaking purely for myself on this, I love the grey hat. I love nuance and complexity, character flaws and hard moral choices. Antiheroes have a special place in my heart. And I know there are many others who feel the same way. But that doesn’t mean the day of the traditional hero is done. There’s clearly something deeply soothing to the human psyche about pure good triumphing over pure evil. Many entertaining and moving stories follow that format, and I can’t see it ever going away.
In previous interviews you’ve described Shrapnel as a new take on the epic tragedy. Traditionally, with victory behind them, the second act of an epic tends treat its protagonists fairly harshly as they head into the climax of the final chapter. I take it Sam and company will fall on hard times with the onset of Hubris?
NS: Absolutely, though not in the way you might expect, and though I can’t say more without giving something away, I will say that the hubris of the title doesn’t refer to Sam exclusively. Also, maybe the hubris is ours for thinking we can top ourselves after such a well-received first volume. You’ll have to be the judge.
The second act also seems to offer the best opportunity for unadulterated drama. Will Hubris be as action packed as the first series, or are we looking at a comparatively drawn in character study?
NS: Clinnette Minnis and I are working on Hubris now, and there’s a balance we’re hoping to strike. There’s a lot of fun to have with character moments, but one of the things I enjoy about the first volume of Shrapnel is how action-packed and rollicking it is, and we want that to continue throughout the entire series.
It seems that no matter what Sam does to make up for her past sins, she just can’t seem to escape from the visceral side of her personality. How large of a role will this play in series two?
NS: Very large. It’s so difficult for us to escape who we are. And Sam’s passion is her greatest strength and weakness. The pressure of leading an army, combined with the pressure of being a symbol and a role model, the face of a movement-it isn’t easy. Not everyone is cut out for that; you don’t necessarily survive it unscathed.
Finally, why don’t you guys give your best pitch for why new readers should hunt down the existing issues of Aristeia Rising as well as sign up for the upcoming Hubris?
ML: (Laughs) OK. Shrapnel is an epic cycle. Three great parts make the whole. Aristeia, ancient Greek, literally “the warrior’s excellence.” Hubris, Greek again, meaning actions that challenge the gods. And Nemesis, not the modern meaning, but something like the bill come due. That should give you a clue about where Shrapnel is heading!
NS: I’m never fully comfortable singing the praises of something I’ve worked on, but fortunately the consensus seems to be that Shrapnel’s gorgeous and fun and terrifically violent. Arestia Rising has garnered some wonderfully flattering praise and we’re not done yet, as there’s a lot of the story still to tell. Come check us out and see what we’re doing.