Cryoclaire and Io Black Rebuild The Cyberpunk ’90s In ‘Drugs & Wires’ [Webcomic Q&A]
If the dream of the '90s is alive in Portland, then the decade's nightmare is alive in Drugs & Wires' cyberpunk post-Soviet eastern Europe. Cryoclaire and Io Black's webcomic envisions a futuristic 1995 where virtual reality and cyborgs are as fashionable as JNCO jeans. Unfortunately, that future kind of sucks. Especially for Dan, the comic's battered and weary protagonist.
ComicsAlliance spoke with Cryoclaire and Io Black about the comic's unique setting, and its eclectic fashion and black humor.
ComicsAlliance: What was the genesis for Drugs & Wires? And what genres and inspirations does it build from?
Cryoclaire: Drugs & Wires started as a series of sketches and comic strips on Tumblr. Back in 2012, soon after graduating from university and going into full-time employment, I felt isolated and wasn't sure what to do with my free time anymore. So I dug out some old character design I had lying around and spent evenings drawing sketches from his sad, miserable life.
After a while, I expanded the sketches into comic strips and tried my hand at a longer story in Dreamspace, a comic made entirely out of trippy animated gifs, but plot and script-writing were never my strong points. Luckily, I met Io Black, who ended up taking on most of the writing and world-building, and with that both of us were finally able to produce the Actual Comic that D&W is today.
I drew my initial inspiration from the classic cyberpunk novels, to the point where many noticed Dan’s backstory had similarities to that of Case from William Gibson’s Neuromancer. But I’ve been equally inspired by slice-of-life comics I was into at the time, like Sophie Campbell’s Wet Moon series, so really, I wanted to have a cyberpunk setting with characters that felt human and relatable.
I think we managed to inject more of that grounded, lived-in feeling by setting D&W in a post-Soviet country, too. These days we draw a lot of inspiration from history and even everyday news, a rich source of misery and terrible things we can stick in the comic.
CA: What’s it about?
Io Black: I pitch D&W as, "A tale of terrible life choices in the dark future of 1995." Our protagonist, Dan, is a too-smart mess of addictions left adrift after his life as a virtual reality jockey imploded six months prior. Now he’s slinging packages at a soul-crushing delivery job, and the closest thing he has to a friend‘s a shameless huckster doing back alley cyber-surgery for the low and desperate, despite the fact that her medical license was pretty clearly slapped together in MS Paint. You know, the usual.
D&W follows Dan as he fumbles through well near every aspect of his existence. It’s a little Gen-X angst, a lot of Slavic kitsch; cyberpunk that cheerfully embraces everything ugly and laughable about the ‘90s, science fiction where the technology is a punchline. Somewhere, on the periphery, there’s even a plot on the brew.
CA: Who is the intended audience, and do you suggest any age restrictions or content warnings?
C: I don't think we’ve ever sat down and thought of a particular audience. D&W's always been self-indulgent like that. On average our audience are young adults and students, lots of IT professionals, but we get all kinds of people reading us, especially at cons, where both teenagers and middle-aged, disgruntled parents seem to enjoy our bleak humour. It does get a bit awkward when little kids approach us, but we're probably not the most graphic comic for a kid to stumble upon.
As evident from the title, we do have a lot of drug use in the comic, and due to the nature of body modification themes, there is a bit of medical gore, too. I'm not into glorified violence, and try to not overdo it, but recently someone at a con was quite put off by a scene like that, so I do try and warn people now.
IB: D&W is so built on our specific interests that it’s sometimes miraculous other people connect with it, too. But our fans really, really dig into the source material, and the folks we do get feedback from never cease to amaze me --- one guy from Boston, actually working in the prosthetics industry, read our comic and promptly pinged us with these great, in-depth observations on implant design, power sources, and how we were handling them in D&W. I think we're the only cyberpunk comic that's read by actual cyborgs, too, which is always a point of pride for me.
CA: Why did you choose a post-Soviet location, and 1995?
C: The date was set long before we started on the webcomic --- my Dreamspace prequel was set in early-to-mid ‘90s, and the rest followed suit. Back then I didn’t think about the world-building as much as I do today --- for the most part I was just really into the ‘90s aesthetic, all that ancient software and UI stuff. It didn’t help that “seapunk” and later vaporwave were really taking off on Tumblr at that time --- it was hard not to get influenced by the stuff when it was constantly on my dash!
The post-Soviet setting came later. It’s actually hard to recall how we decided on it. I know I was thinking of something “very vaguely Eastern European,” but didn’t want anything specific. The world-building you see in the comic was definitely Io’s fault --- he kept encouraging me to make up Russian names and places!
I remember being on the fence about using Russian names for everything (knowing English-speakers would struggle with those), but Io kept coming up with bad Russian names himself until I finally gave up. As the chapters progressed, I definitely got more relaxed about it and even started putting in Russian signage in the background. I’d say my goal is to make the place feel like home for the reader, regardless of what language they speak. Even if it’s the kind of home you want to flee and never come back to.
Io: Even if she wasn’t doing it consciously at the time, you do see little flashes of that Eastern Bloc influence in Claire’s earlier work. For my part, I pushed hard to make it overt, because it felt like an obvious means of breaking away from the more shopworn concepts and visuals a lot of cyberpunk is built on. Webcomics are a tougher, more competitive scene than they were 10 years ago, so I’d argue that anything you can do to really differentiate yourself ultimately works in your favor.
CA: You mention that you sometimes draw inspiration from everyday news, mentioning that it's a "rich source of misery and terrible things." Has this past year been particularly fruitful on that front? Maybe I'm projecting, but I imagine it has.
IB: Well, yes and no. I mentioned earlier that our schtick has been to take dumb, awful stuff and crank it up to 11, but reality seems to be running at a solid, unrelenting 13 these days. Exaggeration is an important way to draw the line between “ha ha miserable” and just plain miserable; people can laugh at Dan’s life because what he suffers through is consciously meant to be absurd. But when the real world is already ridiculous and awful to the nth degree, there’s nowhere to go --- that’s when it stops being funny and becomes flat-out bleak.
For instance, I wrote a bit about the hoops cyborgs in our fictitious republic have to jump through to obtain an implant license --- really shooting for those over-the-top, Kafka-esque levels of bureaucracy. A few months later, in the wake of the Brexit referendum, Claire started the process of applying for permanent UK residency, and quickly discovered that this perversely, deliberately convoluted fiction I came up with was somehow still more straightforward than what she was now going through.
So all told, we prefer to stick to stories about dognapping FedEx drivers and people getting fired via automated dial-in numbers. We’re not what you’d call a “feel good” comic, but everybody needs a little bit of escapism --- especially us.
CA: How has both your creative approach and the webcomic itself changed since inception?
IB: We’re fairly upfront that it's a learning experience for both of us. When I first started writing comics about 15 years back, I focused on just telling a story and didn’t really give much thought to how it’d be presented or printed up. Scenes ran until they didn’t, characters and plots just kind of piled on. There was some vague assumption that it’d all get drawn up at some point, but as you’d expect, that never happened.
By contrast, D&W was very definite. We knew we had exactly one page a week to work with, and I was extremely gung-ho about making the most of it; pacing can be a real Achilles heel for a lot of new webcomics, and as a reader, it can be maddening if you wait a week or more for an update and it’s, say, just three panels of somebody walking down a hallway. But I was still writing to the scene, not the page, and for most of the first year, I was turning in scripts that were almost murderously overpacked, that constantly had to be hacked, hacked, hacked down to size. It took the best part of two chapters before I finally internalized exactly how much would actually fit on a page and stopped being so antsy about pacing.
But now that people know what to expect from the comic, we can ease off the gas pedal a little, decompress the storytelling and dig more into the characters. I think that’s definitely showing through in our most recent updates, and something we’ll continue to do even as the main plot picks up.
CA: What drew you to webcomics and the platform you currently use?
C: I’ve been posting my art online since day one, so it seemed like a no-brainer. By the time we were ready to produce D&W as a weekly webcomic, I’ve already had a bit of a following on Tumblr and Reddit, so it made sense to keep making things for that audience and get as many eyes on our work as possible. Aside from our own website, we use Tapastic, and these days we also cross-post on our Patreon.
IB: I'm old enough to remember webcomics first emerging as a for-real medium --- and it's hard to understate how much of an impact early wagons-West titles like Sluggy Freelance or User Friendly had in demonstrating that you, Joe and/or Jane Anybody, could put your art out there, build an audience, inspire others without the need for traditional gatekeepers or publishers. And even as far back as '96, '97, the concept of becoming involved in that was incredibly appealing. It only took 20 years of pawing at the shop window to find an artist indiscriminate enough to humor me, but here I am.
CA: What’s your process like?
IB: The fundament is to find a stupid, terrible thing, turn it up to 11, drop it into Dan's world. We do have a rough framework for where we want to take our characters and plot --- I’m a big believer in planning endings first and working backwards from there. In between that, though, there’s a lot of blank pages that we fill up with ideas and scenes in the course of time.
A lot of our inspiration is born from the simple fact that we’re talking every day, all day long, swapping images and newsbits through Skype and letting the stories grow from there. Just this morning, Claire sent me an old Soviet poster featuring a literal corncob train that I can almost guarantee will be repurposed for something comic-related down the line. That back-and-forth attitude carries over into the script, too; if one of us happens to get hit with a bolt of inspiration, we write it up, drop it into Google Docs, and --- at some point, anyway --- figure out how it integrates with the rest of our story.
A mutual lack of ego helps. Both of us ultimately want what’s best for the comic, so we don’t really have what you’d call creative disputes. I structure the overall plots, write what scripts I can, and leave design and layout in Claire’s hands. Claire in turn trusts that I won’t make a complete pig’s ear of the ongoing storyline. We haven’t e-murdered each other yet, so I guess it’s working.
CA: How did you develop the aesthetic of Drugs & Wires? I'm particularly fond of the fashion and how it characterizes the cast and environments.
C: Thanks, fashion is actually my favourite part of working on the comic! The whole process is incredibly self-indulgent, really. The VR scene in our comic is very influenced by music subcultures, industrial in particular, so I never miss a chance to sneak in a band shirt or something.
I do try and think of characters and what’s appropriate for their personality, though. We have our main character, Dan, who wears exclusively decade-old T-shirts, and his doctor, Lin, who’s like American McGee’s Alice on a budget. But then we have a team of antagonists obsessed with designer fashions and Cyberdog-inspired ultra-neon club wear. Of course, I take some inspiration from the Russian culture of the ‘90s, too, like the infamous crimson suits of Russia’s nouveau riche. I think one of my favourite designs in the comic is Marilyn Hope-Fokker, who’s decked out in an ‘80s power suit, kind of like a more futuristic version of Alexis from Dynasty. Looking forward to designing more outfits for her.
I guess I take the same approach with environments --- think about the time period, the people that live there and style it accordingly. Drawing clutter and personal belongings is my favourite, though it becomes a bit of a pain when you try to keep your scene consistent in each panel! I do try to color-code locations when I can, too, though it’s hard to have a designated color for every character and setting when there’s so much going on!
IB: Like everything else about the comic, the visuals are a hearty stew of every weird, wacky piece of Stalinist tack, eye-rending fashion, and obsolete tech we can get our dirty little hands on. The '90s were such a rich time for bad ideas that there never seems to be an end to what we can scavenge from.
CA: As creators and readers, what is it about the brutal and black humorous world of Drugs & Wires (and similar stories) that you find most appealing?
IB: I don't know if it's a question of appeal so much as something that comes naturally to us. I'm a fairly cynical creature, so to me it does feel like there's something slightly more honest about dark humor.
Many of my favorite comedies --- Veep, BoJack Horseman --- are driven by terrible people being crappy to each other, but in a way that you could easily see happening in the real world, so the characters acquire this additional tinge of relatability that I find very admirable as a writer. It’s also, to my mind, a lot easier to pivot from that somewhat grounded black humor to straight-up drama, which is a trick we’re hoping to pull off more and more as the story rolls on.
CA: Do you think self-publishing this story granted you freedom that you might not have had elsewhere?
C: None of us had any experience in the comics industry in any way before starting D&W, so it’s hard to judge how this process would go if we, say, had an external editor. Back when we were starting out, I doubted D&W would get picked up to begin with. Now that we’re getting bigger, we are thinking of approaching publishers in the future, but it’s never been our final goal. I’m personally quite happy to self-publish, though with issue #3 on the horizon, printing costs are a limiting factor, and we’ll probably have to consider a Kickstarter to produce a collected volume in the future.
IB: While there’s a luxury in being able to indulge our dumb, weird interests, the biggest freedom we enjoy is in terms of format rather than content. An online platform means we don’t have to ape print comics, but can, say, underscore a bad drug trip with a little bits of tripped-out animation, or take a detour into a Satanist blowhard’s photocopied wreck of a zine. We’re always looking for creative means to take readers a bit further into our world, a lot of which wouldn’t be options the traditional way.
CA: Which other webcomics would you recommend to readers who like yours?
C: As someone who shamelessly plugs industrial bands in our comic, I’m gonna recommend Martyr Youth, a comic about a bunch of goth kids in the 80’s and their rise to fame! I also read HeLL(P), a comic literally set in Hell and not taking itself too seriously. And for anyone looking for neon-drenched cyberpunk webcomics, Lovesyck.
IB: John Allison’s Tackleford universe is a clever, idiosyncratic, and above all, very British marriage of fantastic and mundane --- probably the biggest influence on how I’ve written D&W.
I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for unconventional fantasy, and for readers looking for more of the crunchy sort of world-building that goes into D&W, there’s a couple of (ahem) fantastic titles currently doing the rounds. The big one for me is Tom Parkinson-Morgan’s Kill Six Billion Demons, which is this madly, gratuitously inventive riff on wuxia flicks, Hindu mythology, and about forty other gleefully disparate things. The Deep Engines collective has really struck gold with their vivid, rich cityscapes and inspired combinations of Middle Eastern, African, and Pacific Islander influences. Our friends Jenn Lee and Ty Dunitz are also doing fine things with their pre-post-apocalyptic romp Rising Sand --- probably one of the best-looking new comics out there.
If you have a webcomic you’d like to suggest for an upcoming Webcomic Q&A, send a tip to jonerikchristianson[at]gmail[dot]com with the subject line “Webcomic Q&A.”