Be Unafraid: The Official ‘Wake’ Exit Interview With Scott Snyder & Sean Murphy
Creators Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy’s mind-bending, centuries-spanning Vertigo Comics horror/sci-fi series The Wake comes to an end today, and it has covered a lot of ground in its 10 issues — which is quite an accomplishment for a book that takes place in a world almost entirely covered by water.
A mix of horror and mythology spanning three different time periods, The Wake features a group of scientists, led by Dr. Lee Archer, attempting to uncover the secrets of a vicious Merman-like creature captured by the U.S. government. As Dr. Archer and her team do their best to discover the truth, the creature — with the ability to invade their thoughts, granting them each what they believe to be their heart’s desires — has other plans. The creature unlocks many of mankind’s myths of the sea — and, consequently, itself — and propels a wild-eyed, high adventure narrative that traverses centuries and brings in monsters, pirates, super-science, post-apocalyptic cultures and some of the most haunting psychological horror Vertigo’s published in years.
Throughout, the Eisner-winning series has taken the emotional, intellectual and philosophical and made them manifest on the page with some highly innovative and bold storytelling techniques, such as when, after five issues of following Dr. Lee’s adventure, the book jumps hundreds of years into the future to focus on a new protagonist and her cybernetic dolphin. The final issue takes that approach to a whole other level, telling a creation myth while providing closure for the characters. It’s quite an accomplishment, and we talked with Snyder and Murphy about how they pulled it off.
WARNING: Issue #10 spoilers ahead.
ComicsAlliance: One thing that struck me immediately about how the story ends is that it goes to some places of abstraction. I’ve written about how The Wake jumps around in terms of genre, and what I see this last issue doing is taking on creation myths, which is a whole other kind of story. What made you decide that you wanted to end by tackling something that huge?
Scott Snyder: For me, it was always built into the premise of the story. It wasn’t something we decided on in-progress. Hopefully, it’s teased well enough throughout the first half, where you see some of the key moments in our zany creation myth hinted at. Ultimately, the reason we wanted to leave this to the end and crescendo with it is because on the one hand, it’s maybe the most ambitious move in the whole book; to be able to take on this idea of the origin of the species and do our own speculative sci-fi take on it that leaves the strangest genre for last — not just because we wanted to have a big plot reveal.
For me, at least — and Sean and I talked a lot about this before we started — the book is about trying to be exploratory and being brave. One of the deals between us when we started was that we would challenge each other and have it be a book where we would be unafraid to try things I think were beyond the boundaries, at least for me, definitely, of my own storytelling. I’ve never done a book like this, and there are so many elements in it that I’ve never approached. I tried to break a lot of the rules that I’m usually very strict about following, from the smallest things like naming characters similar names — like Lee and Leeward — to big things like not killing everybody off half way through [laughs]. Using cold opens and teases in the first half, not using them in the second. Mixing things together that aren’t supposed to go together.
Having the creation myth at the end… the point of the myth isn’t just to be surprising. It’s to address the point of the book, which again, is about being exploratory and this notion that we all wake up, I think, afraid or restless and knowing in some way that there are these truths that we’re never going to be able to process out in the world. Whether it’s wondering what’s beyond death or some of the things that keep us up at night, there’s an inability for us to do more than just chip away at those things. The two things you can do is retreat from them or you can be curious and explore, even if what you find just leads you to more strangeness. That was the impetus of the book to begin with, that’s what it came out of. That sense of, “Let’s do a book that’s exploratory.”
It’s about being unafraid, it’s about reaching for truths that seemed at once totally extraordinary, bizarre, strange and baffling. End the book with the strangest of them all, which requires the most elastic sense of commitment to the book to be able to enjoy. Then to try and write and draw the hell out of it so we can make it believable [laughs], and also make it uplifting at the end.
CA: While we’re talking about drawing the hell out of it, I wanted to ask Sean about what kind of prep you had going into this last issue, because there are a lot of challenges. You have to draw Leeward going to what is basically another plane of existence. There’s a part in this book where something that you would not expect to be a spaceship becomes a spaceship. There’s flashbacks to caveman times where you kind of change up your style of those parts to make it a little more simplified to match the primitive setting.
Sean Murphy: Scott had me firing on all cylinders, for sure, like the spaceship scene. To put [Lee] inside of a place that was nebulous and undescribed while also making it feel like an actual place, came down to how Matt [Hollingsworth] colored it. He came up with some really great suggestions on how to use color holds and give it an unearthly quality, which I thought was helpful. I don’t know if that scene would have worked if it didn’t have the color on it.
CA: As far as your role in creating this story that goes to so many different places and does so many different things, your art is so malleable in this. It’s so shifting.
SM: Having a clear script was helpful, and Scott and I chatted a lot about different visuals we wanted to see. He’d send me a lot of stuff he found online to guide me in the right direction. Having his input was huge, but also him being very open to my interpretations of his script. It’s rare when the two of us don’t end up agreeing on pretty much the same way to handle the parts of the story. Some of the solutions that Scott comes up with are things I probably would have done as well. We’re very simpatico in that sense.
MW: I want to talk about the title The Wake. I think there are several layers to that title, the first being that this is a story that takes place largely in and around water, it makes sense in that way. But in a lot of ways, the story feels like how a funeral feels, from the start to the end. The first half is about mortal terror. The second half is about trying to find some kind of hope and enlightenment from that mortal terror and then eventually finding some way to find peace. Scott, is that how you very intentionally structured this? Were you thinking about a funeral as you were writing this?
SS: Yeah. It was 100 percent definitely in the discussions before we began. This idea of the book having a funeral quality in the sense of waking up from death. Also being a lot of the book having to do with what’s on the other side of these visions. These people at the bottom of the ocean, is it a Fiddler’s Green? Is it just literally a neurotoxin that’s causing it? What’s beyond the vale of what we can actually touch and see in the story? What are the creatures trying to tell us? What’s beyond? All that.
There’s meant to be a resurrection of the ship [from the first half of the story], and the ship itself is kind of meant to look like an eye, waking up. Just a sense of The Wake, meaning to literally wake up to the alarm of the ship going off and feeling as though the long sleep of not recognizing this secret history is over. Also, likening sleep in some ways to being protective of what you have, and unambitious or not curious about going out and trying to find things beyond the boundaries that you’re familiar with. Not being afraid to keep your eyes open to things that are going to be terrifying. We played a lot with a lot of the meanings in it. I can’t get over how many of the layers are there in Sean’s art, and Matt’s too.
To give credit where it’s due to Matt Hollingsworth, who’s just been phenomenal on the book: We’ll do an image that’s hands reaching up from the bottom of the ocean, one of the recurring visuals, the creatures giving people this vision of the ship, this vision of these people down there waiting. The beauty of those images, the way Sean drew them, the hands and the people reaching, and then the coloring. Having it be something that’s both spooky and haunting but also oddly inviting and luminous. That sense of it being a light at the bottom of the ocean. I really feel like the art brings those multiple layers to life in the book itself. I love turning the pages and looking at the art. Sometimes I’m like, why do I even need to talk?
MW: One of the things that’s interesting to me about this story being in the format of a comic is that it’s about a quest for knowledge. It’s a quest for knowledge that involves pirates and sea creatures, but nonetheless it’s a quest for knowledge. It seems to me that some of the things that are in this book are a little difficult to portray in a tangible way. Yet it comes through on the page. One thematic thing that I kept noticing issue after issue are those pages where Leeward will be describing things she’s done. She’ll almost be giving a travelogue. That was especially something that happened in issue #9.
Sean, the way you’ll portray that isn’t even in a way like panel by panel progression but all mixed up in one big splash page. What made you decide to take that approach instead of more of a panel by panel recap of what’s happened?
SM: I think it started with Scott’s script. He wanted to try a dreamlike flashback where you had different elements, but not necessarily with panel borders separating things. We talked about it and he asked if it would work or if we could do it partially. I said I’d love to try it, I had never really done montage-y type of stuff like that so, that looked a lot of Drew Struzan and stuff like that. I think the trick was, l was going through each visual bit and adding the correct narration over certain parts of the page. I think that Scott’s writing really makes it more of a sequential storytelling rather than something that could just be an illustration.
I was impressed how he would find little bits in the background. He would write something around it and put that word balloon right next to that element, and then your eye would be led to the next part. There was a real back and forth on those montage pages and the more we got comfortable with them, and the more successful they seemed, the more we used them as a go to as a go-to storytelling device through this series. It all started with Scott.
SS: I told Sean about the book back when we were doing American Vampire together, at least three years ago at this point. Part of the fun of the book is I consider Sean a really good friend outside of comics. We became friends back when I was starting out, and one of the things i’ve always been so impressed with with him is his world building. We worked on American Vampire, and that’s a series that has incredibly zany elements, like secret bases and underground museums with monkey vampires. He’s able to not only portray that, but bring out a kind of richness of detail and a believability by making a world not look necessarily realistic, but by making it so full and robust and emotionally realistic through character, that you’re enveloped by it.
So part of the fun here where we did this book was, again, I knew it was going to be a book where the whole point of it was to do something where we’d be pushing each other. The plot was set, the reveal of the final issue was set and the structure was set. But there were a lot of things in the middle that I knew we’d improv with. I’d create a seafaring adventure to mix with the sonic dolphin and the parrot drone and we’d have that intercut with the creation myth and a futuristic sci-fi. I really felt like the only person that was going to pull that off and make it look consistent was Sean. So it was always about us doing the book together and when I got to those pages, that was just exciting, knowing we had an issue where I can say, “Sean, here’s two or three pages. Here’s something she’s encountered on her journey, however you want to design it, go for it.”
That fun of the back and forth, then having to dialogue over that — where I knew basically what was going to come but then seeing the images and how they were going to play out required me to tell the story differently. That’s part of the living, breathing quality of a book like this where it’s so much fun to work with someone that you’re going back and forth. There’s a dynamism to it. It’s not just static where I hand the script it, it’s drawn, it comes back I look over the lettering, and it goes to print. It’s constantly revising back and forth.
SM: Oftentimes my first read of it is when it hits the shelves, when everyone else gets to see it. Maybe a few weeks ahead, but I’ll read stuff in the plot and dialogue and go, “man, that’s brilliant.” I had no idea that was going to happen. It gets better each time you pass it back and forth. The scripts are really great, and I try to improve it where I try to add stuff on it where I think would be appropriate, and then Scott goes back and adds another layer of increasing the quality of them. When it hits the shelves, it’s bigger than either of us thought it would be when we started out each month.
CA: Just before this series started, I interviewed you guys about it. When we talked about it then, I was fixated on the imagery of the series reminding me of a lot of great films that I know of. I think that still a worthy comparison to make about this series about film, but one thing I didn’t even know was coming was that element of what I think a lot of great films have, which is the ending that gives you something to chew on. That gives you some closure, but also leaves quite a few things ambiguous. One of the movies we talked about was The Thing, which has an ambiguous ending. The ending of this also has, to me, maybe a Close Encounters of the Third Kind feel to it. There’s certain things that are left open-ended for either the reader to interpret or to never be answered. Some things just never get answered, especially when you’re talking about creation myths.
Did you guys have an trepidation about making a story like this, with an ending that’s a little open-ended? People like to grouse sometimes about that kind of thing. How did you feel about that going in?
SS: The whole book was incredibly exciting and it’s probably the most fun I’ve had in a long time. It’s also a real terrifying book at times, especially getting to the ending. In a lot of ways, I think both of us wished we had more room and more time with the book. There are a lot of things I would have loved to write mini-stories about or do expanded issues on. I’m really glad we kept ourselves to what we said we would do with the ten issues, and held it to the way it is. Ultimately, its probably a better book for it. It’s really scary knowing how much to tell and how much not to. What I was really hoping with the final issue, was that we would give you enough so that the mysteries that were plot driven made sense.
You can see that there’s a grand design to the structure of the book, and to some of the things that were laid out both in the first and second halves that seem really mysterious and bizarre. About the seed itself, I could have fun writing a whole issue about the seed. Or really, even about things in the present, like what happens to Leeward afterwards? Or what happens to the fleet? Or what happens to the ship? All of those things, we discussed and had a lot of fun telling stories about or coming up with ideas for.
But you’re building in a sort of a manner by which those things would be subsumed by the emotional crescendo of the book, so that when you get to the end it’s less about “here are the things that went unanswered factually” and more about how everything makes sense emotionally. It’s a book about exploring and being unafraid. The way that those questions are answered is satisfying, because there’s enough [detail] so it doesn’t seem like we didn’t know what we were doing, and you understand that there’s a design, but at the same time you see the point wasn’t to create a viable creation myth or a viable monster at the bottom at the ocean or a viable set of sea pirates two hundred years from now. I want it to be a book you read, put down and say “I want to go try something i’ve never tried before” or “I want to go do something that I’m afraid to do.” Do you know what I mean? That was the hope. That hopefully that quality would sweep you up because it’s the more important aspect of the book at the end of the day, and the thing that kept us happy working on it was that it was always about doing that and being unafraid together and pushing each other to try things we hadn’t on the page.
CA: What’s your take on that, Sean?
SM: One thing Scott said that’s interesting, and I agree with him, is risk taking. I respect Scott, he does try things out in books when he’s not quite sure if it’ll work or not. I really respect that about him. There are so many safe ways to end a story or draw something in a certain way, so its nice when someone like Scott has enough confidence in himself and his overall career to try something new. Whether it’s to mix genres like The Wake does, or to try a different kind of ending or to throw me a curveball and not quite sure what exactly I’ll draw but to trust that I’ll draw something good enough to write off of after. Things like that. I’m not aware of a lot of people who take risks like that. That’s one thing I really appreciate how Scott works.
SS: Thanks man, I appreciate that.
MW: One of those unanswered questions at the end — and I’m not necessarily asking for an answer but I’m wondering if you had any particular thought process about it or whether there’s a definite answer in your head — is about what the motivations of the mers, the sea monsters, is and was. Because it’s still not entirely clear. I think it’s clear why they brought Lee down to this other plane, and these other people that are there. But in my mind, a little bit of a question as to whether there is some malevolence in them or they’re entirely positive creatures that maybe just don’t have the most subtle approach [laughs]. I feel like there’s a little ambiguity there.
SS: You’re 100 percent right. One of the things that inspired them a little bit… did you ever read the book Cold Skin? I read it recently, it’s by Albert Sánchez Piñol. It’s about a guy on an island after World War I and his job is to maintain this island, and the person before him was talking about these sea creatures that come out of the water. How there are these monsters that come out after nightfall. He eventually meets one and it’s this very odd small tale of this creature that comes out of the water and winds up having this relationship with and the creature gives him nothing. It’s this strange, almost — not mermaid — but slimy, scaly, odd humanoid thing. It never offers anything but this blank stare.
One of the things I wanted to do with the mers was to have them challenge us in a way that wasn’t that they were benevolent or malicious, but they’re supposed to be a mirror. The one thing they do is that they challenge us to look at the hard truths. And for us, the reason they sink the world when they do, is that when we begin to follow the impulse to forget, or to protect what we have, and to not be exploratory but to be fearful, that’s when they react against us the most violently. So, what [Governess Vivienne] was saying in the last issue where she said we were about to dismantle or kill this ship using S-Net, which is in the first part of the story, in case it began to say anything or act up. That’s really the moment they decided to flood everything.
They’re constantly, and at least in my mind, terrifying, in that they eat us and they’re animals, but at the same time the people that they find that they somehow believe in — whether it’s people that are mariners or they see something in the chemical make up of the tears of people they find at sea — the people they bring there are people they believe will help us remember and help us be curious.
They’re both constantly villains and also kind of heroes for me, at least when I’m writing them. The fun was that ambiguity, where they attack and they challenge us to look at ourselves and see the things we don’t want to see. Then they’re also willing to give us the benefit of the doubt and to see that there’s a curiosity in us, and a kind of exploratory nature that they respect. There’s supposed to be this odd mirror in that way.
MW: There are lines in here, in a couple of different places where a character says the mers are us. I guess in that sense, the fact that they’re both malicious and benevolent is another way that they mirror humanity.
SS: Yeah, for me it was that they challenge us. They’re always there. The key line for me was, “our eyes make us forget.” The ideas of tears and crying and the sense of this strange chemical that causes us to neurologically to erase what we did. Their eyes give us visions in the tear ducts there and the tear sacs, they give us things, visions that remind us of the kind of thing that not only we did but were capable of somehow.
So they’re both good and bad, that strange in-between where on the one hand they’re always mysterious, and at the same time they’re vicious and also benevolent in the way they try and remind us of the better aspects of our nature. I hope that came through. When Sean and I first started talking about the book, that’s always the way they were; positive. I mean, I hope it makes sense too that part of the idea of the book is, I guess, explore and have fun with the mysteries of the ocean and the idea of it being something that gives and takes away at the same time. That idea that it can be bring things on the tides and then be an incredibly destructive force. So to create a creature that’s an extension of that in some way, that sometimes is this incredibly generous giver of information, truth and other times is this violent attacker and disruptive force, was part of the point.
MW: Along those lines, the mers as you designed them, Sean, are both terrifying and beautiful. I think in the first half of the story, I got more of the sense of terrifying and as the story reached its conclusion I think there was more of a sense of you showing them in a light where they were beautiful. How did you strike that balance of getting the horror and the beauty into that design?
SM: In the first part it was easy to make them scary because of the amount of dark scenes, lights going out and things flooding, people running out of options. That’s what made them more terrifying. But they become more humanized, in a way. There’s a scene in the end where Leeward and and a mermaid exchange a look, and it doesn’t really tell you what it is, but I feel like that kind of makes them not so… they’re clearly not evil. They’re just animals. They have some motivation that we’re not sure of but they’re not just there as monsters. I think that moment in particular for me really fleshed them out about what they’re about.
MW: Sean, are you sick of drawing water?
SM: My colorist and I joke around about the next book we do we can’t have any water. We love it, but getting every little droplet, the color blue is a huge pain. But if you want it done right, you have to take the time. There isn’t a single panel of water in the entire The Wake that I don’t think looks better than most stuff i’ve seen in a long time as far as how water is handled by colorists.
I’m proud as Scott was, he has more involvement in mainstream characters than I do. I love Batman as well. That’s one thing Scott and I talk about returning to at some point. I’m thrilled with The Wake. I would have loved a little more space, like Scott. But I feel that way after a lot of my books are finished. I always feel like we could have used another ten pages. I think that’s just the nature of having to finish something.
MW: I think I’m going to wrap it up with a question that you hinted at a little, Scott. About how you wished you just had more space. I think The Wake is a complete story. These ten issues are a complete story about Lee Archer and Leeward and their adventures. But, you guys have created a world where presumably side stories could come up. Are you satisfied to leave this world where it is? Or are you going to want to scratch that itch to come back to it?
SS: I totally want to come back to it. Sean and I, we joke around. For the trade, I was like let’s just do a story about Dash and Gabby, the dolphin and parrot drone. From the smallest things like that to some of Leeward’s adventures after the story ends. There really isn’t a part of the book that I wouldnt love to return to. I’d be honored to do it and thrilled to work in this world again with Sean and Matt. It’s been a tremendously rewarding and wonderful ride, because I feel like it’s one of those experiences, this book, where it was just pure. For me, at least.
To be honest and off the cuff a bit, when I started working on the book I had given up American Vampire for a year because [artist] Rafael [Albuquerque] had things he wanted to do and I had things like Superman [Unchained] that were on my plate, with Jim Lee, and Batman. There were a few months where I only had Superman and Batman before I started working on this book. I got incredibly anxious and depressed, honestly, working only on licensed characters. I love those characters. I love working on Superman and Batman dearly. So, it’s not a matter of not wanting to do licensed stuff; it was that I had no place to be experimental or exploratory without restrictions. I try and be that way on those books, but there’s still limitations as to what you can do on characters you don’t own.
When we started on this book, part of the joy and immediate fun was that we were going to mash things together that shouldn’t go together and do things that we knew would probably be ridiculous and risky in terms of pulling off the whole thing. But that was the project from day one. It’s been such a joy, honestly, and such an honor to work with Sean and Matt and [editor] Mark [Doyle] on the book. And [letterer] Jared [K. Fletcher]. I’d come back to it in a minute and do a whole other ten issues. But we have other things we want to do too, Sean and me together.