Justin Aclin On ‘S.H.O.O.T. First’ And Battling The Supernatural With Weaponized Atheism [Interview]
Around Halloween, it’s always fun to read stories about ghosts and spirits, and personally, my favorite kind of spooky story usually revolves around a team of hard-boiled toughs slugs it out with monsters in a more action-oriented tale. Justin Aclin and Nicolás Selma’s S.H.O.O.T. First, currently out from Dark Horse, fits that mold, but there’s a twist: Rather than fighting the monsters on their own supernatural terms, the Secular Humanist Occult Obliteration Taskforce battles exactly the monsters they don’t believe in, gunning them down with guns powered by anger and atheism.
It’s an interesting twist on a classic concept, so to find out more, I talked to Aclin about his motivations for writing the series, the reaction he’s expecting from religious readers, and how personal the stories of atheism guns are for him.
ComicsAlliance: So how hostile do you think this interview is going to be?
Justin Aclin: [Laughs] Is that a trick question? Will the answer I give set the level of hostility? You and I managed to get through an interview about Star Wars together, so I’m sure we can cross any bridge we come to and it’ll be fine.
CA: I ask because it was only a couple of days ago that I wrote about how I don’t like it when monsters are given “scientific” explanations for existing rather than just going with magic, and that’s pretty much the exact premise of S.H.O.O.T. First.
JA: I’ll be honest with you. Your approval is very important to me. [Laughs] I actually got legitimately nervous when I read that, I thought “oh crap, I just sent Chris a couple issues that are exactly like that!” But I legitimately thought, well, that is the premise, but I feel like, as you pointed out, a lot of the stories that take that position do it as a way to be lazy about monsters and impose their own rules, whereas in S.H.O.O.T. First, it’s sort of the whole point of it. It feeds into the central metaphor and the central conflict of what the whole series is about, so hopefully it’s not just a matter of me deciding that I don’t want to come up with an explanation for why vampires don’t show up on camera. The reason behind it and all the world-building is based around this fact.
CA: The places where it bugs me tend to be in stories where things that are every bit as weird as monsters already exist. In a superhero comic, there’s no need to not just have vampires, because you already have Kryptonians or Doctors Strange. And I do like S.H.O.O.T. First a lot, actually. All I ask for is consistency, and if it’s Hellboy where everything is true, that’s fine. If it’s S.H.O.O.T. First, where nothing is true, that’s also fine. I think you’ve done a good job with that.
JA: Thank you. S.H.O.O.T. First does take place in this world where everything that you can imagine that could be considered a supernatural monster, or a cryptid, or a religious creature is basically one type of creature that S.H.O.O.T. refers to as “Outside Actors.” We get into it quite a bit in the first issue, and in subsequent issues too, but they’re extradimensional creatures that self-evolve. They can choose their own form, so they can basically be whatever they want. But somewhere along the line, they discovered that if the form they choose aligns with either a creature that humans have a belief or a faith in, or if they then manipulate creatures into having faith in them, it charges them and gives them even greater abilities and powers.
That’s the history of our two species for the past couple thousand years. They’ve been manipulating us into believing in their various forms, and humanity’s just been going along with it. Then along comes the Secular Humanist Occult Obliteration Taskforce, and they not only want to stand up for humanity being able to stand on their own without this manipulation, they also know that the Outside Actors have an endgame in mind that involves most of the people on Earth dying, so they’re here to protect us.
CA: It’s an interesting idea, beacuse you have this group of super-hardcore atheists trying to prevent what would be a literal Biblical apocalypse.
JA: Right, and the reason it would be a Biblical apocalypse is that they’re setting it up to be a Biblical apocalypse. They’ve been seeding these apocalyptic prophecies for thousands of years just in case they ever needed to pull the ripcord and make it happen. Now they’re realizing that if things keep going along as they have been, eventually their food supply is going to dry up. Science and reason will win out over faith, so their plan is to pull the ripcord, make one of these apocalyptic prophecies come true — because there are several factions that each have their own apocalypse that are a competing to be the first one to have theirs happen — and even though most of humanity will die out in that, the people left over will be in their pocket forevermore. Those are the stakes they’re fighting against.
CA: There are a lot of things I want to talk about. The Atheism Guns, for example, are a pretty fun idea, but since you already brought up what’s going on in the comic, let’s talk about that. I read #1 and #2 back-to-back today, and I thought “oh wow, Aclin’s looking to get letters.”
JA: [Laughs] Especially #2, I think. I tried to be respectful of religion, other than the fact that, obviously, this takes place in a world where religion is wrong. Setting that aside, I’m not saying that people are wrong for being religious or having religion.
The opening action scene takes place in a mosque, but it’s not “evil Muslims” attacking it, it’s S.H.O.O.T. trying to save the people who are worshiping there from the Outside Actors that are attacking them. It’s never religious people or people of faith being the antagonists, unless they’re allied with the Outside Actors and trying to do harm to humanity, which does come up a few times. The comic does have a viewpoint, which may be a popular viewpoint on the Internet, but isn’t a popular one in the outside world yet, which is that religion may have its place, but a certain kind of religion that belives firmly that it has all the right answers and that everyone else should live by the truths it believes is a destructive force. The people fighting against that are the protagonists in this series.
So yeah, if fundamentalist religious people are ever moved to pick up a comic book that says “Angels vs. Atheists” on the cover, I’ll probably get some letters about it.
CA: I think you might have a Jack Chick tract about you.
JA: Is he still active?!
CA: Oh yeah. As someone in the south with Halloween coming up, I can tell you without a doubt that there are going to be houses handing them out instead of candy.
JA: I should’ve gotten him to do an alternate cover.
CA: That would’ve been great. But yeah, we’ve talked about it before and I’ve read the Dark Horse Presents stuff, so I knew the premise going in, and it’s the kind of thing that could quickly become just really insulting very easily, if it’s not done well. But I think it works out really well.
JA: I’m sure there’s a comic you could write where it’s a team of atheists fighting against just religious people constantly, but I’m dealing in allegory here. I think the important word in the title is “Humanist.” this isn’t a team of completely cynical nihilists who are out to destroy everything having to do with religion, they’re humanists. They believe in humanity. They’re taking a stand for humanity, and that includes religious people and people who wouldn’t choose to have their services if they had a choice in the matter. There’s a line in the DHP story that you mentioned where Mrs. Brookstone says that they defend humanity whether humanity wants it or not.
Like I said, there’s a certain viewpoint that the comic takes about a certain kind of religion, but when it comes to humans and humans who are willing to let other humans live as they want, it’s a very pro-humanity book. Hopefully that comes across as, if not inoffensive to everyone, because I’m certain it’s going to step on a few toes, then as coming from a place that’s not looking to poke people in the eye for the sake of it.
CA: Most comics, superhero comics in particular, take the position that everything mythological is true. It’s kind of by necessity of there being myths and weird history that it’s fun to do stories about. In Hellboy, like I said, every religion is true, every folktale is true, every bedtime story is true. With S.H.O.O.T. First, is it a matter of you seeing that nobody was doing a comic where none of it was true? Was that the role you wanted to fill?
JA: When I was trying to come up with the story, I wanted to do that sort of Dark Horse comic that Dark Horse is known for, where it’s a team battling against mythological creatures. It’s fun. I love that kind of thing. I’d just read Beasts of Burden, which is fantastic, and which is basically BPRD with the twist that everybody is a pet. I read that and was blown away by it, and I was thinking “what’s the twist that I can do?”
The twist that I came up with was that every time you see monster hunters, they’re fighting on the monsters’ own terms. You always see someone going after a vampire with a stake and garlic, you never see monster hunters saying “it’s all bulls**t, we’re going to go after them on our own terms with our own weaponry.” That was what unlocked it for me, and then it happened to dovetail into things I was going through at the time in terms of becoming less religious and starting to question my own beliefs. It gelled nicely and turned into this thing that became not only the action-adventure comic that I wanted to write, but something that really let me explore questions that I had about what I was going through, and emotional places that will hopefully resonate with people besides me.
CA: It feels like there’s a lot of Nextwave in this, too, in terms of influence.
JA: It’s funny. You’re not the first person who’s said that, and I’ve seen a few people say that Nicolás Selma’s artwork, with colors by Marlac, reminds them a lot of Stuart Immonen’s work on Nextwave, which is fantastic.
CA: That’s not a bad comparison to draw.
JA: Oh, yeah. Immonen is tops, man. But it’s funny, because other than an issue here and there, I haven’t read Nextwave, believe it or not. It’s cool, I’ve gotten that comparison enough times that I want to check it out, and I’m flattered, because I know people love Nextwave.
The Pyramid Golem, I was amazed that no one had done it before. I searched for it after I came up with it, and it was probably three years ago now that we’ve been putting this book together, and I’ve been living in fear ever since that someone else would do it before it came out.
CA: I’m jealous of it. I wish I would’ve come up with it.
JA: There was a race and nobody knew it.
CA: Let’s talk about the characters. You talk about working through a lot of stuff yourself, and there’s a lot of that in the character of Infidel. There’s a scene in #2 that I think is a very common thing for people who have faith and lose it, where they have a moment where they wish they could go back. Is that something that was personal for you?
JA: That, not so much. I live in New York, you know? I’m not surrounded by super-religious people. My family, even though I was raised Jewish, none of them are very religious, and my wife and I are very much on the same page, so I’m very fortunate in that regard. What Infidel is responding to is that, coming from Afghanistan and coming from a community that is very much based around faith, losing it isn’t just a personal thing for him. It shuts him off from everyone he knew.
I’ve never had that experience of wanting to go back, but what he’s going through in terms of recognizing that… once you lose that faith, you can’t just will yourself to feel it again. Once the plug is pulled out of the bathtub, there’s no getting that water back. That’s something I’ve definitely experienced, but I’ve never had that sort of longing to undo it that he has.
This is getting a little personal, but when I was first writing the story and starting to deal with it, I had a lot of questions about how I would feel, especially in terms of how I was going to raise my children and how I was going to teach them about death. One of the chief strengths of religion is that it gives you a belief in something that’s greater than yourself, and that’s something that makes death feel less scary. Once that goes away, how do you replace it? Do you need to replace it? Working through the story of S.H.O.O.T. First helped me figure that out. I won’t tell you where it is, because you’ll be able to tell if you read all four issues.
CA: I was going to ask, then, do you consider yourself to be closer to Mrs. Brookstone? The person who finds herself unable to comfort her son?
JA: We do raise the kids with our beliefs. I was lucky. The very first page of #1 is Mrs. Brookstone being surprised by her son when he asks her what happens after you die, and by her reaction, we can tell that this is a) not something she’s prepared to answer, and b) something she’s been dreading having to answer. That came from, not so much the personal experience of my kids asking me about it, but of dreading what was going to happen when they did. By the time they eventually did, I’d worked out a lot of the stuff, so I was more prepared to answer than Mrs. Brookstone was.
But yes, I do identify with her, very much. I think being a parent and having these struggles is a lot different from going through it on your own. You’re not just thinking about your place in the universe, you’re thinking about the place for your children and how you’re going to instruct them and how they’re going to fit in with the community and their peers. There’s a lot of responsibilities of being a parent, and this is one of them.