The Deadly Power Of Ideas: James Tynion IV And Eryk Donovan Go In-Depth On ‘Memetic’
Later this month, BOOM! Studios will release the first issue of Memetic, an oversized-format, three-part limited series by the team of James Tynion IV (Batman Eternal, The Woods) and Eryk Donovan (The House In The Wall) with colorist Adam Guzowski that puts a distinctly modern spin on classic apocalyptic fiction formulas. The title is an adjective referring to memes -- self-replicating ideas or entities that start with an individual before spreading to more people and across various media.
The story of Memetic is kicked into motion by the unleashing of the kind of adorable animal image many of us have seen and shared. In this case, it's "Good Times Sloth," and it becomes the most viral piece of internet content in history. Unfortunately, Good Times Sloth turns out to be weaponized meme that leads straight to the end of the human world as we know it.
It's a fascinating and unique concept, and to get a bit more insight, we spoke to Tynion and Donovan about the project's inception from initial idea to finished product.
NOTE: Spoilers galore ahead – consider yourself warned.
ComicsAlliance: The "Good Times Sloth" logo was the first image that BOOM! released from this series, it's the first thing you see upon opening the book, it's the variant cover for issue #1, and it's the element that sets the entire story in motion. Who designed that image, and how did you go about putting it together?
Eryk Donovan: James of course wrote the thing, and I came up with the actual image itself. I had an initial version that showed more of the Sloth’s body, but after some discussion with our editors Eric [Harburn] and Jasmine [Amiri], I went for the version we see now. As for the color, the script originally describes the background of the meme being this extreme unnatural amount of vibrant swirling color, so I drew a few sort of swirly guidelines for [colorist] Adam [Guzowski], and figured he’d take that in his direction. Did he ever! He was the one that came up with the rad 3D swirly effect that we see for the final image, and the GIF that we used for the marketing campaign. It really brings the thing together!
James Tynion IV: The evolution of the image into what we see now was one of the most exciting parts about digging into this series. With the Sloth, I knew I wanted to touch on the kind of “Advice Animal” sort of meme, but without the advice added in. It was a sloth pretty much from the beginning, and I know some people thought I was joking when I brought it up. I didn’t want to go overtly creepy. I wanted to go innocuous, even a little banal, but with the natural strange/cute combo that a Sloth provides – and with Eryk’s art, and Adam’s incredible design sense, I think we ended up with something really strange and special. The perfect kind of meme to end the world with.
CA: Over the last decade and a half, memes have gone from being spontaneous happenings to calculated global sensations – we've gone from "Andre The Giant Has A Posse" stickers to a Grumpy Cat merchandising empire, and to "go viral" is every marketing campaign's ambition. So, what inspired you to take the idea to a new level, and tell a story about a Meme that actually works as a virus?
JT: About two years ago, I was just getting started in the comics industry, and I had this one weekend where I wasn’t feeling great. I wanted to try and tell a story that was relevant, that I hadn’t really seen before. I’m a huge horror geek, and I like the bleak stuff… The borderline nihilistic apocalyptic “no hope” kind of story. So I started thinking about our current cultural fears and how to take that to the next level, how to build a real, honest-to-god apocalypse out of them. I came up with a few stories that night, but Memetic came to me almost fully formed. There’s always a fear that the things we love might destroy us… In a lot of ways, you can see this as a modern take on a story like Terminator, which came out of all of our fears of the rise of the personal computer in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Nowadays, I’m not sure the fear is so much what the computers might do, but what we might do, through computers. There’s no stopping the spread of an idea, and if that idea was dangerous but alluring, it would reach out and destroy everything it touches. If it went viral, the damage would be catastrophic. That’s where this came from… It’s a heightened version of what we already see happening every day. The way the internet can spawn horrifying witch-hunts and become a spawning ground for terrible idea after terrible idea… We created it to spread useful information, but we get more of a kick out of spreading things that inspire an emotional response, regardless of whether that emotional response is cheap and meaningless.
CA: Apocalyptic stories are practically a dime a dozen, but this is a great example of putting a new spin on that concept. Are there any end-of-the-world stories you looked to for inspiration, that you feel had their own identity and really got it right?
JT: For me it’s all about John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy. The Thing, In The Mouth Of Madness, and Prince Of Darkness (although much more the first two). The Thing is probably one of the greatest horror movies ever made, and the weight of the inescapability of the creature, and the total hopelessness at the end… That sense that neither of them know if the other is human or not, but that it doesn’t matter. It’s a physical spread and replacement of people that’s wholly alien and unnatural. In The Mouth Of Madness is an even bigger influence on the series. I just rewatched it the other week for the first time in years, and I could see the seeds for Memetic hiding between every moment of it. They never use the word meme, but it’s the same idea… The propagation of an idea across mass media spreading destruction to people who actively want to take it in and propagate it. The thought of a deadly idea has always appealed to me. The book that drives you insane. That one thought that gestates in the back of your mind until it rips it apart. What’s scarier than that? Especially on an apocalyptic level.
ED: For me, I think one of my favorite post-apocalypse films is The Book Of Eli. It’s not a perfect film, but I love that the focus was small, and that it had a concept that was very plausible. I think as far as post-apocalyptic stories go, focusing small rather than big is what makes them successful. The same with The Walking Dead book (I haven’t kept up with the show recently), it focuses on the characters and how they react and deal with the world, and the plots’ focus is on more personal events. Zombieland is another favorite, and follows a similar structure in that way. For Memetic, any inspiration for me was more from event-type movies since this all about stuff happening right then and there, rather than dealing with the world after the fact. Independence Day or Dawn Of The Dead, that sort of thing!
CA: How did you guys end working together on this book? James, did you cast around for artists, or was Eryk onboard from day one? And Eryk, what drew you to this project?
JT: The pitch for this series is something I’ve had sitting around for about two years, so long before I’d gotten the opportunity to work with Eryk on the In The Dark horror anthology for IDW, and House In The Wall for Thrillbent. I worked with BOOM! for a good long time trying to find the perfect artist for the series, and as I saw Eryk’s work growing, and got to work with him in all these other places, it became clear that he’d be the perfect choice to build this horrifying world and bring it to life.
ED: Well, James rules, obviously. He’s a great guy and I love working with him, so when the opportunity to try out for the project came in, I was totally down. I really liked the main characters, as well as the additional cast, and the idea was really interesting to me; it’s so relevant right now. Just look at so many of the crazy and terrible events over this summer that had massive web response: Ferguson, ISIS, Ebola, countless other horrors, this is real. You also have great things that really help people like the Ice Bucket Challenge, and the cheer to someone’s day of a new happy kitten video or good deed that can really affect someone psychologically. Sure, Memetic takes this in a direction of science fiction, but at the same time, if you think about how we affect each other and the world around us every day with the internet and social media, it’s really not that much of a stretch for the imagination.
CA: James, did you have specific ideas for how the book should look, or did you just leave the portrayals in Eryk's hands? And Eryk, what sort of reference did you do for the visuals?
JT: One of the benefits of having worked with Eryk elsewhere is that I know I can trust him with limited direction. I can see what direction he’ll take certain things in, and when we’ve been on different pages, it’s been easy for us to redirect ourselves back onto the same path. There are definitely visual moments that were important to me, but I wanted to give Eryk room to define the look of the series on his own terms.
ED: There have been a few points where James has had a specific idea for something, and then I just do my best to capture it, but for the most part it’s been up to me. Fortunately, I think we’ve had a lot of similar influences growing up, so there are certain things that just immediately clicked. As far as reference goes, I use a fair amount of photo reference, even if it’s just to get an idea for a character or place.
CA: How did you go about developing this idea from initial concept to full script?
JT: Memetic is a weird project in that it came to me pretty much entirely fully formed. If you were to look at the pitch document that I wrote two years ago, and compare it to the finished project, not much will have changed. I saw both Aaron and Shaw from the get-go as our entry points into the series. I always saw it as an oversized, three-issue miniseries. Even the general progression of events matches that first rough draft. The only real point of change was the second issue, at least in terms of Shaw’s story progression, but even there it was more an act of filling in the blanks rather than deviating from the plan. Hell, the last few pages of the series were literally copied out of the final paragraph of the pitch document and expanded on. (I should also say that the pitch doc was also waaaay more detailed in terms of issue breakdowns than any of my other pitches have ever been).
CA: It's a pretty diverse cast you've created here – are any of them modeled on real people?
JT: I’d say Aaron comes a lot from me, and really, all of my characters do… But they were mostly formed as a counter-point to the world I was building for them. I knew that I wanted a queer protagonist, because we so rarely see that in horror stories for whatever reason. Aaron is very much the kind of angsty, early-college version of James. Full of passive aggression and mopey tweets. But visually he doesn’t take much from me, aside from dark hair that swoops a bit.
ED: None of the characters are specifically modeled after people that I know or I’ve seen, though I do take inspiration from people to be sure. While not quite the same, and definitely straighter, I thought of Neil Gaiman in Aaron’s hair. Sarah probably looks vaguely like my wife since she pops into everything. Watching film is a really good way to think about character, since as the artist you are having each of your characters perform and act, making you an actor in essence. Studying or taking from performances in film can really help bring a character to life, and I’ve been known to act out certain scenes myself to get a feel for what seems most natural.
CA: Eryk, you seem to be pushing your art in a slightly different direction here – it's a little looser than much of what you've done before. Is that just a natural evolution, or is it something you specifically set out for with this story?
ED: Interesting! I’ve actually had a few people recently tell me how much cleaner and more solid Memetic looks than my older projects, but that was also looking at the original art. It’s fascinating how our individual perceptions can contrast. Any differences are a mixing of my natural evolution as an artist with specific intent I have to try something for that story or book. I like experimenting and exploring different methods or approaches, so there is always this push and pull, finding a balance between what is working for me and what I want to pursue next. I think my work has a defined enough look that people can tell it’s mine, but I’m sure each project will be slightly different because of this. I’ve always enjoyed vibrant, energetic inks, and horror tales are great for allowing some looser linework or more expression in the brushwork. I like to think it’s always progress, pushing farther up a mountain, or maybe climbing down and starting up a higher one, the goal of never reaching a plateau.
CA: And credit for the look of this book is also due to the colorist, Adam Guzowski. How did he end up as part of the team? Had either of you worked with him before?
ED: I had seen some of his work on Nailbiter, which I thought looked great, but I’d never worked with him before. I think he was brought in through Eric, and his sample pages were awesome. I’m really glad we’ve had him on Memetic, because he really brings things to life. And that Sloth! Damn, that Sloth is so good! He took what was a great drawing of mine and turned it into something really iconic.
JT: I’d never worked with Adam before, but after his incredible work on this series, I’d work with him again in a heartbeat. His vision for the world has been right in step with mine and Eryk’s, and it’s just amazing to feel so much on the same page with your creative team from day one. The second I saw Adam’s solution to the Good Times Sloth, I knew we’d found an absolute winner.
CA: Do you have a firm idea in mind of exactly when and where this story is set?
JT: Aaron’s placement in the story is left a bit deliberately vague. A college town on the edge of a major urban area. I wanted it to have an edge of “Anycollege, in Anytown, USA!” without leaning into that too hard. His surroundings are definitely a strange blend of my own experiences at Sarah Lawrence College, combined with my summers in Madison, WI. So the major city nearby is kind of a Milwaukee/NYC hybrid. But the rest of the series we did want to ground in real-life locations, and you’ll see that hold firm over the series.
ED: This is definitely more for James than I, but Aaron is in New York, and Shaw is in Virginia. I try to reference the city a lot through photos, but I also add a lot of my own interpretations, so not all of it is a recognizable street, corner, or building. I’m sure I’ve brought a lot of my time being around or in Philly into it as well.
CA: And while things seem pretty bad at the end of issue #1, given the opening flashback sequence, it seems like things will only get worse from here…
ED: I’m so pumped for you guys to see Issue #2, and #3 is shaping up to be pretty wild. Each day gets crazier than the next.
JT: This is the story about the end of the world. It’s going to get pretty rough for our leads, and pretty much EVERYBODY else out there. This isn’t going to be a fun apocalypse, that’s for sure.
CA: So, then – I'm guessing we probably shouldn't anticipate a sequel?
ED: I honestly think a sequel to this book would be one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen!
JT: I think it’s a fair bet that these three issues are all we’ll see into the world of Memetic… Other apocalypses, though… I might have a few more tucked into the back of my mind. You’ll just have to wait and see!