No Longer Waiting For Something That’s Never Going To Happen: Eric Stephenson On The Return Of ‘Nowhere Men’
Image Comics' Nowhere Men is one of the most talked-about series of the last few years, but public opinion is fickle. A pop-sci fi tour de force by Eric Stephenson, Nate Bellegarde, Jordie Bellaire, and Fonografiks, it quickly gathered critical acclaim and a handful of Eisner nominations before --- just as quickly --- effectively disappearing.
Now, more than two years since the last issue, the series is finally returning, with Nowhere Men #7 landing this Wednesday, January 20. In advance of the return, Eric Stephenson spoke with ComicsAlliance about the delay, the comeback, new artist Dave Taylor, and taking inspiration from David Bowie.
ComicsAlliance: It's been a long time since Nowhere Men #6 --- only a couple of years, actually, but I thought it would be fun to start by quoting a Beatles song. How does it feel to get this comic book back on track?
Eric Stephenson: It feels good. A little scary, too, I guess, since it's been so long. The marketplace doesn't stand still, so two years is actually longer than it seems. Hopefully, there will be a few readers who still remember the book.
CA: Has the extra time altered how you think about the story, characters, or events you had planned?
ES: Well, issue seven was written two years ago, and issue eight was more or less ploted out back then as well, so in that sense, no. More time to think about something is always good, though. Issues #7-12 are essentially the second half of what is really one story, though, so much of what's happening between now and the end of this arc was settled upon some time ago.
CA: On art you have Dave Taylor now, and we'll get to how great he is in a moment, but it is still unfortunate that Nate Bellegarde could no longer be a part of Nowhere Men. How difficult was it to move on without him, even after all that time?
ES: Absolutely. Nate and I created the book together, and it was a very difficult decision to continue without him. Ultimately, though, it was either do the book with another artist or don't do it at all.
CA: Dave Taylor's got a small following in the states, but he's not that widely known. How did you land on him?
ES: Dave was a fan of the book, basically, and when it looked like Nate wasn't going to be able to continue doing the book, he offered to get involved.
CA: Jordie Bellaire and Fonografiks define the look of Nowhere Men as much as the illustrator, and they meshed very well with Bellegarde's sensibilities. How does Taylor fit in with the best rhythm section in comics?
ES: Based on the reactions I've been getting from people who've seen the first issue, I'd say pretty well. It looks like Nowhere Men, which is the most important thing.
CA: Sometimes a change in artist results in a change in the story, or the way a writer writes. Has having Taylor as illustrator changed your approach?
ES: He's starting to, yeah. The first couple issues, maybe not so much, but now that I'm writing specifically for Dave, it's a little bit different process, absolutely.
CA: How so? What is it about his style, or what he brings to the project?
ES: Mainly that he's just a different human being from Nate. No writer should treat every artist as though they're all the same. You get s----y results that way. All collaborations, any working relationship, really, is going to be different depending on the individuals involved.
Dave and Nate are both very detail-oriented, but they have different styles, different influences, different overall interests. If I were just pitching everything to Dave as though I was still dealing with Nate, or writing for him the same way I write for Simon [Gane] on They're Not Like Us, it would be frustrating for both of us. That's not how real collaborations work. Every writer develops a different kind of rapport with each artist he or she works with.
CA: In issue #7, Emi Lenox of Plutona contributes some art to the ephemera. Will you be bringing more guest artists in?
ES: Maybe, if we continue past #12. Emi's on board for the duration of this arc, because she's illustrating sections of the story that are taken from one of the character's sketch diaries, and as anyone familiar with Emi's own sketch diary, Emitown, can tell you, she's pretty much perfect when it comes to that sort of thing.
CA: About that ephemera: it's different from what you usually see in comic books, where it's mostly about providing backstory or filling out the world. In Nowhere Men it introduces characters, foreshadows, verifies theories... What led you to make it so integral to the story?
ES: Originally, it was just a way to get more story into the book without overburdening Nate, but its also become something of a showcase for the mighty Fonografiks. It's kind of fun to come up with ideas for that stuff and see where he takes them.
CA: Nowhere Men was critically beloved and had a very devoted following, but delays always run the risk of losing fans. How confident are you that you're getting everyone back?
ES: Well, like I said earlier, you never know. Sales on the first trade have been very strong over the last couple years, strong enough that we had to go back to press on the book, but that doesn't mean people will show up to keep reading the single issues.
CA: So much happened in the first arc; it's got a lot of characters and moving parts. How do you make it accessible to people starting with issue #7?
ES: By having that trade out there? There's going to be a character map on the back covers of each issue going forward, a who's who that shows who has been infected, who's living, who's dead, things like that, but apart from that... I don't know that this is one of those comics you can bill as a "great jumping on point," y'know? It's the middle of a 12-issue story, and really, you're going to benefit from reading the first six issues before you read this one.
CA: What was the initial inspiration for Nowhere Men?
ES: A couple of things, I guess. In terms of comics, I've always found it interesting that so many comics from what we all call the Silver Age are based on accidents. I wanted to do... well, an origin story, for want of a better term... that was rooted in very clear intentions. No one's a victim of circumstance here, there's someone pulling the strings, someone intentionally setting things up in a specific way to see what happens. And what happens winds up being bad for almost everyone involved. So there's that, but I also wanted to tell a story set in a world where fame is based on achievement and not just... being famous.
CA: It really has the feel of a story that you were building for a long time. How long did you have it in your head before it started to become a comic?
ES: Nowhere Men was something I'd been working on in one way or another for about 10 years before the book finally saw light of day. It's funny, because at one point, early on, Nate had sent me this jpeg of an ad he thought might serve as inspiration for a series of teasers, and the copy on the ad said, "I feel like I'm waiting for something that's never going to happen." That pretty much summed up how I felt about the project as a whole up 'til then.
CA: Based on the first six issues, it seems like it could probably go on for years. How long are you planning it to be, what all is said and done?
ES: Nowhere Men will either end with issue 12 or continue on as long as there are stories to tell. The reality of the marketplace, though, is that we won't know which is which until we see what sales are like to the next few issues. Ideally, yeah, we'd like to continue on, but that's up to the readers!
CA: So whether or not it keeps going ultimately depends on the readership and the sales numbers, but... you're the publisher. How do you bring that kind of objectivity to your own work when you could just say, "I'm the publisher and I like it, so it's going to run as long as I want"?
ES: I'd actually tend to err on the opposite side of that. I mean, I had to be talked into reprinting the first trade, actually, because when I didn't know that we were definitely coming back for more issues, I felt it was unfair to have the volume one trade out there, kind of leaving people hanging. It just seemed like a f---ing tease, you know? "Here's the first part of this story --- see ya!"
But Corey [Murphy, director of sales at Image Comics] said stores were asking why it was out of print, and she was very insistent we get it back out there, and once Dave was on board, I was okay with that. But yeah, I don't have any right to keep something going if it's not selling well. I'd be a f---ing d--- if that was the case.
CA: You've got Nowhere Men and your other book They're Not Like Us, and both have frequently been called 21st-century equivalents/updates of Fantastic Four and X-Men. Were you thinking that while creating them?
ES: Not really, no. The only thing about the X-Men that stuck with me when I was developing They're Not Like Us was that Professor X was kind of like Fagin from Oliver Twist, but with more noble intentions. They're both stories involving an older, wiser mentor exerting influence over his younger charges, and Fagin was kind of more the inspiration for The Voice, you know? Complete disregard for the kids and no problem whatsoever over deceiving them or hurting them.
I think making those comparisons is lazy, though, because you know, They're Not Like Us really isn't anything like X-Men. They're not a team. They're not heroes. They have powers, but by and large, they're criminals. These are kids who have killed people, vandalized things, stolen things. They're not necessarily evil, but... they've definitely gone astray as a result of The Voice's influence, and they're only now kind of coming out from under his spell and figuring out who they really are. If that's what X-Men was about, maybe I was reading it wrong.
With Nowhere Men, it's really just a reaction to those Silver Age origin superhero stories where people get powers because of some happy accident. This wasn't an accident --- it was someone's plan, and again, that someone doesn't have a whole lot of regard for others, just his own ambitions and being right.
I don't know. I think one of the problems with our industry as a whole is that we tend to look at everything through the prism of superhero comics, and it's really kind of limiting in a way. I wouldn't characterize either Nowhere Men or They're Not Like Us as superhero comics.
CA: Both comics are very, very good, by the way; completely different from anything else on the market. Do you have plans to write any more new stuff in the future?
ES: Eventually, yeah. Simon [Gane] and I want to do something else together after They're Not Like Us is finished, and I've got a couple other ideas I've been kicking around for a few years that I'd like to get to at some point.
David Bowie's death has kind of put me in re-think mode, though, because looking at his amazing career, at everything he accomplished by remaining steadfastly true to his muse and always looking ahead, always looking for the next thing... I think he set a high bar for what creative people can do over a lifetime. Just churning out more of the same, or just doing things because they're commercial, is a cop out really, and something that's going to cripple us in the long run. I don't want to be part of that, so whatever comes after They're Not Like Us and Nowhere Men is going to have to be a huge departure, I think.
CA: And lastly, the most important question: what are your soundtrack suggestions for Nowhere Men #7?
ES: There's a fairly obvious reference to the Dukes of Stratosphear song "Brainiac's Daughter," so I guess I'd start with that. "Heroes" by David Bowie. "I've Been Waiting for You" by Neil Young. "Strange News from Another Star" by Blur. "Corporeal" by Broadcast. "Paper Chase" by Paul Weller. "Futurology" by Manic Street Preachers.