Violence, Intrigue, And Revenge: Peter Milligan Brings Us Up-To-Date On ‘The Names’ [Interview]
This past September, Vertigo launched Peter Milligan and Leandro Fernandez's nine-issue limited series The Names. It's the story of Katya Walker, a woman who finds herself searching for answers after her husband's apparent suicide and fighting for her life against a world-dominating techno-financial cabal known only as the Names. Over the first five issues, Katya has formed an uneasy alliance with her stepson Phillip, a hyper-intelligent and socially awkward teenager, and together, they've embarked on a journey to unravel the mystery – and in the process, come into conflict with "The Surgeon," a grinning, knife-wielding psychopath that The Names have dispatched to tie up loose ends. (And meanwhile, unbeknownst to Katya and Phillip, the mysterious cyberspace-based beings known as the Dark Loops are wreaking havoc on both The Names' plans and global financial markets.)
We last spoke with Milligan six months ago, just before The Names #1 was released, and now that the story has reached its halfway point, we're excited to follow up with another in-depth conversation about the series.
WARNING: The following contains spoilers for The Names #1-5.
ComicsAlliance: Now that we're halfway through this story, things are going in a rather different direction than I had expected after reading issue #1. We're just past the halfway point, and the Dark Loops have been used mostly as a backdrop for the human characters… Is that dynamic going to shift as we get into the home stretch?
Peter Milligan: I always envisioned the Dark Loops having an increasingly important role in this book. In fact, I think they're much more than a backdrop to the human characters; fear of the Dark Loops and attempts to discover what exactly they are will increasingly drive the characters, and this will be brought into sharper focus as the Dark Loops begin to step out of the shadows and physically impact upon some of the characters we're following.
CA: On the other hand, it's interesting to see how certain elements you introduced right at the beginning have started to bear fruit: Katya's fighting training, Phillip's obsession with Katya, the simmering dissent in the ranks of The Names. Are there more pieces that have been in place that readers should go back through and keep an eye out for, to better prep for what's coming up?
PM: I hope that everything is there for a reason, whether that's something like Katya's training or Phillip's obsession, so it's a very good idea to look back and see what's been going on and what's been said.
CA: How has your rapport with Leandro changed/developed/grown over the course of the series?
PM: It's hard to say what exactly has "grown" because we seemed to get on so well from the beginning... It's true that occasionally he will try out a different way of doing something from how I've described it in the script. It's good when an intelligent and mindful artist does this, and it's even better when that artist is prepared to listen to feedback and maybe change things again. There have been a few occasions where we've gone backwards and forwards a little on how best to lay out and tell a scene, but Leo's always been nothing but professional, and only wants the best for the book.
CA: Something that sets this series apart from many "techno thrillers" is how the technology (so far, at least) seems to be working equally for both sides. The tech the characters use has not been the enemy or purely the domain of the enemy – the heroes and villains are both making use of the phones, the computers, and the internet as tools.
PM: Well, yes, I suppose there are elements of the "techno thriller" about The Names, but I really think it's about people. About characters. The smart phones (N-Phones as I refer to them, N being for Names) can certainly be used by both sides. The tech is not the enemy, in other words.
CA: It's a fairly small central ensemble you're working with – Katya, Phillip, and the late Kevin Walker (who, though deceased, manages to play a central role in the story) on one side, The Surgeon and Stoker on the other. And increasingly, Detective Guzman (who entered the story a litle later) appears to be caught somewhere in the middle. Are the major players all in place by the end of issue #5, or are there still more waiting in the wings?
PM: With regards to Guzman entering the story a bit later, I refer you to your earlier question about whether readers should go back and check up on things they should look out for. Maybe you might want to look back to episode one, the second scene: Guzman is there in the scene where Katya reads Kevin's "suicide note" and sees his dead body.
As for whether all the major players have been introduced, this is a thriller, the kind of book where you're never quite sure what – or who – is going to turn up next, so I think I'll pass on that one. But let's say that the central core is pretty much in place.
CA: Regarding Phillip, he appears to have some form of high-functioning autism – hyper-intelligent but lacking some personal interaction skills. Have you done research or consulted with people in developing this character, to be sure you get the details right, or are autism/Asperger's things you have a familiarity with?
PM: I've deliberately never used the word autistic, and I didn't want to state whether Philip is in fact autistic. Yes, some of his behavior would appear to be on the "autistic spectrum" but that is not all of who he is, nor does it explain all that he does. I've done a fair bit of research in this field, so I'm familiar enough with it, but I wasn't setting out to create in Philip some accurate picture of the condition.
CA: You seem to be doling the violence out very deliberately, but as a result, when it does happen, it's particularly unsettling and intense. The Surgeon slices up people's faces and Katya fights for her life in brutal, no-holds-barred fashion. Have you and Leandro had any concerns about those moments – how the action is portrayed, how much space those sequences will take, what should be shown, and what should happen off-panel to maximize the psychological impact?
PM: We've tried to be true and accurate to the moment. I haven't wanted to be gratuitous about it, but violence is by its nature shocking and painful, or at least should be. So I've been sparing, but when it does happen, when it's necessary to show it happening – the first time Katya kills someone, the brutality of The Surgeon when he slices someone up – I've wanted it to have a certain shock value. And of course, if you over-use or use violence (or sex or anything else) gratuitously, then you're going to devalue the currency.
CA: As for the sexual aspects of the story, there are a couple unorthodox elements in play here: a boy obsessed with his stepmother and a villain who seems to be taking an almost erotic thrill in his psychopathic behavior. Have you had concerns about how far you could push those aspects, and have there been scenes where you've had to tone them down or punch them up to create the desired effect?
PM: Perhaps it is unorthodox for a boy to be so obsessed by his (albeit beautiful and young) stepmother, but every scene with Phil reveals that he is far from orthodox. And as for a villain who takes an almost erotic thrill in his psychopathic behavior, that seems perfectly reasonable and believable and – which is the point – further goes to make The Surgeon a creature unlike other most men. With regard to the second part of this question, I haven't worried about how far we should take these scenes or whether we should tone them down because nothing in them seems gratuitous: everything seems totally believable and honest. Fair play to DC and Vertigo, I have had no problem in this area on this book.
CA: As comic covers tend to be prepared far before the interior work is finished, has Celia been wielding an influence on how you're portraying any particular characters or events?
PM: I think this is more of a question for Leandro. I couldn't say how far – if at all – they have influenced each other, but I believe there have been some conversations going on.
And I have to say, I've been knocked out by Celia's covers, so whatever she's doing, she's doing right!
CA: Something we touched on in our last conversation is the labyrinthine flow of the story, with Katya trying to find her way along, and the readers having a slightly broader viewpoint on the action. We're now past the halfway point, and to extend your own metaphor – we have a slightly better idea of the surroundings, a slightly better camera angle, but no better leads on where to find the Minotaur, how to fight the Minotaur, or even exactly what a Minotaur is (since describing how something looks isn't necessarily the same as knowing about it). So, I guess the actual question is – is the Minotaur actually the big threat, or is the biggest concern the pathway itself?
PM: I'd say that by the end of episode five, we and Katya have some better leads to find the minotaur. She and we certainly know a lot more about "the labyrinth." She didn't even know it existed until she went looking for Kevin's killer. Clearly, the pathway or the journey to discovering the truth has terrible dangers, and there's a feeling that the closer Katya gets to what she's looking for the more of a problem and therefore the more in danger she'll become. To answer your final question, I'd say that you have to be very careful with extended metaphors about labyrinths and Minotaurs. But being unable to resist extending it a bit further, the main danger might not come in facing the Minotaur... But in losing the thread that will allow you to find your way back out of the maze.
CA: This story moves at a fast, furious clip, piling event upon event, and action upon action… By the time it all wraps up, how much time has gone by?
PM: Yes, it's fast. Nine episodes, but a lot of story. That's how I wanted it. I wanted it to feel like one of those fast-moving, complex TV shows. And though a lot of the action – once the funeral is over – is condensed over a pretty short time period, by the time we arrive at the final scene, something close to two months has gone by.
CA: And then there's the big reveal at the end of issue #5, with Kevin out looking to buy a good time and instead coming face-to-face with his supposedly-dead mother. What can you tell us about how this revelation will affect the back half of the series?
PM: Tara – Philip's biological mother – will play a huge role in the unfolding of the plot and in the development of Philip and Katya. She'll also prove that The Surgeon might not be the biggest psychopath on the block...