Return To ‘Escape From New York': Christopher Sebela Revives A Cult Classic [Interview]
Next month Boom Studios releases the first issue of Escape From New York, the latest title from the publisher to present a sequel to one of John Carpenter's cult-classic '80s movies -- following on the heels of the popular Big Trouble In Little China series.
The publisher has hand-picked an excellent creative team to follow in the film's footsteps and put Snake Plissken through his post-apocalyptic paces, in the form of Eisner-nominated High Crimes writer Christopher Sebela and acclaimed Irredeemable artist Diego Barreto. ComicsAlliance spoke to Sebela about his plans for the book, his affinity for the source material, and the experience of adapting such a well-loved property to the comics medium.
ComicsAlliance: First of all, to ask about a detail that's derailed many a licensed property in comics: I'm assuming, as with Boom's Big Trouble series, you have the rights to not just use the property, but also the likenesses for primary characters?
Christopher Sebela: Yep, we have Kurt Russell all sewn up. The rest of the cast, what little of them are left at the end of the film, not so much, but that doesn't mean we won't be using them at some point, just that we have to get creative with how we do use them.
CA: What's your starting point with this series? Is it a prequel, a sequel, a bunch of interstitial stories?
CS: Definitely not a prequel. I don't know that I'd have been on-board if the whole goal was to spell out what made Snake Plissken who he is. I think he's most effective because we have to fill in all his blanks ourselves. We don't know how he lost his eye or why he started robbing banks, and we don't need to. But it's not necessarily a sequel, not like Escape From L.A. is a sequel; it's more of a continuation of Escape From New York than anything. We're focusing on what spins out from Snake's rescue of the President -- and then immediately pantsing him in front of the world.
CA: You're probably best known for your work on Dark Horse's Ghost, and your own creations, High Crimes and Dead Letters. How did you end up with this gig?
CS: You'd have to ask everyone at Boom exactly why I was asked, but I think a lot of it had to do with Dead Letters, which is also a crime-type book set in an unconventional place. Sam Whistler, the main character of Dead Letters, isn't Snake Plissken but he has that "one man against the world" quality to him, and his surrounding cast of creeps and criminals and possible psychotics matches up with the population of the film. Maybe High Crimes helped too – whatever got me here, I'm super grateful.
CA: Have you been doing much in the way of research to prep yourself for this project?
CS: I've probably watched the movie a dozen times since getting the gig. And half a dozen more with just the commentary track of Kurt Russell and John Carpenter. I already had the expanded soundtrack and my editors were kind enough to send along the novelization. As far as other movies, not so much. My feeling is, what more do I need than Escape From New York? I do throw on Escape From L.A. now and then, but that's about it. It sets its own atmosphere, it builds its own world, it's all I really need to do the book, I think. Everything else comes out of my head and merges with it to interesting effect.
CA: How did you settle on Diego as your interior artist?
CS: Diego has worked with Boom before, he'd done a bunch of issues for Waid's Irredeemable and some other stuff. He did several sample pages of Snake running and gunning, and both Carpenter and the studio loved his stuff. Diego's a big fan of the film and you could tell from his samples, so everyone was on board pretty quick and he was off and running.
CA: Is his specific style influencing the direction you're taking the story, or what elements you're including?
CS: Diego's pretty good at all of it. So far I've thrown him stuff that swings wildly from conversations inside a van to huge showcase action moments, and some odd set-ups and he never blinks, he wades right in and makes all this stuff seem reasonable and realistic.
CA: You brought up the film sequel, Escape From L.A., which is a bit of a controversial topic among fans – some love it, some hate it. What's your feeling on that movie, and are you planning on incorporating any of its elements into your story?
CS: Personally, I love Escape From L.A., but I understand there's a contingent of folks who don't, who have problems with stuff in it. I totally get it, too, I just strongly disagree. It's a much different movie in terms of what it's trying to do and how it's approaching the story; it feels a little night and day between it and EFNY.
That said, I'm not really using anything from it, mostly because there's 16 years, timeline-wise, between New York and L.A., so if we manage to get 16 years of comics out of this, sure, we can talk about it then.
CA: There have also been a couple other continuations of EFNY's story, and both were, coincidentally, in comics form – a one-shot from Marvel, and a mini-series published by CrossGen. Do you have the rights to utilize any of that material?
CS: We don't, as far as I know, but we didn't want to. Those books were more the assorted adventures of Snake Plissken, a scrapbook of his history. We want to tell a direct through line from the end of the film to what happens next; we want consequences and experiences to stack up and inform what comes next.
Snake isn't immortal, he's just tough as nails and unwilling to bend, and I think a lot his mythos in that world comes from not seeing the moments between the big moments; we want to get to those too. We're not throwing Snake on a couch to spill all his feelings, but we're taking the quiet interim moments as seriously as the big action scenes.
CA: In some ways, Snake is almost a perfect continuity-free zone: he gets dropped into a city, sh-- happens, everyone thinks he dies, and then it happens again somewhere else later on. Are you concerned with continuity at all?
CS: For all intents and purposes, we're trying to build a Snake Plissken continuity. The big draw for me was, like you said, he's pretty continuity-free, and to be able to sit down and build out his life from this monumental series of moments he goes through in the first film and what that would lead to. I'm telling stories that go from one to another, call and response, so it's all continuity. We're not going to swing wildly in the other direction and just have him thrown into place after place with a timer on his wrist and something deadly in his system, but New York was just the start of how messed up things get in Snake's life.
CA: Do you run the scripts by John Carpenter for approval?
CS: We run everything past Carpenter and the studio to get their nod. From outlines to complete scripts to finished issues. Carpenter even gave us some notes as to what he'd like to see, where he'd like to see things go, and if John Carpenter asks for it, I'm going to find a way to make it happen. In this case, I think it lead to an arc that I wasn't planning on, but fits perfectly into the book and the Snake Plissken mythos.
CA: Where is this story set, and what's happening when it begins? Can you give any teases about what we have to look forward to in the first few issues?
CS: Our first page is the ending of the film, with the President playing the cassette that just turns out to be bandstand music and Snake tearing up the real cassette as he walks into the dark. Naturally, any sort of amnesty he was promised sails right out the window and he's got a monumentally pissed off President who points the entirety of the United States Police Force at Snake.
So Snake is on the run, which he's used to, but it's in this America we've never seen any part of other than New York and L.A. And the only place that's a safe haven for Snake is Florida, which is under new ownership and not really playing nice with the rest of the United States or anyone who works for it. Snake shows up in what's supposed to be a paradise and finds out, like we all have at one point or another, that Florida is kinda messed up.
CA: Have you done anything in particular to put yourself in the right frame of mind to write about dystopian future Miami?
CS: With creator-owned books I do a thing where I find an "establishing song," and that's the song I always go back to to get me in the zone. With Escape, I've already got John Carpenter's score, which is a huge part of my arsenal. I already loved it before, but now I get to listen to it as I write Snake Plissken, which is surreal beyond the telling.
Then I supplement it with other stuff that feels relevant. For this first arc, being in Florida, I've dipped into Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' greatest hits; to hit that original NY vibe, I've got lots of old 70s and 80s New York Hardcore, which goes pretty well with the aggro nature of Snake and the world he's in.
And, as a personal affectation, I've always loved Billy Joel's Miami 2017, which is his own dystopian Florida song. Our worlds don't match, but they're both very much about trying to keep some sort of hope in a country that's burning while we watch – and that is the most highfalutin thing I will ever say about Billy Joel and comics.
CA: Ofttimes when doing a comic-book expansion of an existing property, the temptation exists to expand the world and do things that might not be possible -- or affordable -- on film. And while sometimes that works wonderfully, as with, say, Dark Horse's Aliens titles, other times you end up with -- for example -- a giant green space rabbit on the Millennium Falcon. What's your approach with this book?
CS: I'm aiming for the no-holds-barred ridiculous on a street level. I'm approaching it the same way Carpenter approached a New York turned into a prison. While the setup is huge and nuts, it's still mostly grounded in the rules of reality. I'm sticking to that, but we're comics, and we don't have to stick to budgets like Carpenter had to, so we can do things on a much huger and weirder scale.
My rule is to keep it all grounded in reality, but it's also a futuristic tale from a future that took place 17 years ago in an America that doesn't exist, so reality is a flexible concept here. Rest assured, I'm not going to be having Snake team up with a cyborg or fly a gullfire to the moon, but with every scene, I stop and think, how can I make this really memorable?
CA: Are you planning this as an ongoing, as a series of mini-series, or are you just gonna wait and see how the cards fall?
CS: It's planned as an ongoing and I have the whole first year planned out. While they're three separate arcs, each one feeds the next, and these first twelve issues feel as much like one huge story told in three different parts. Where we are at the end ties all the way in to the beginning of the film, but it also opens things up for Snake in a way that will make Year Two even more rife with possibilities.
Nothing is guaranteed past Year One, but we hope people dig what we're doing and will want in for the long ride with Snake.
Escape From New York #1 is on sale online and in stores in December.