Mark Batson on Erasing Creative Boundaries and the Beautiful Process of Making ‘Loaded’ [Interview]
Mark Batson is known for producing some of the biggest hits for major artists like Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Eminem, 50 Cent, The Game, James Blunt, Dave Matthews Band, Nas, Maroon 5 and more. Now the music veteran is trying his hand at graphic novels with his series, Loaded. The first book of the series, The Story of Ghost, follows the title character; a James Bond-esque assassin in the making. The second part, The Story of Sin, is also slated to be adapted into a television series --- with Dr. Dre set to produce the music.
We spoke with Batson about the Loaded, moving from music to comics, the adaptation, and also have a sneak peek at the first volume.
ComicsAlliance: What inspired you to create Loaded?
Mark Batson: Being a music producer, I wanted to write scripts and also pursue the idea of having my music, or any ideas I had, turned into visuals. That has always been pretty fascinating to me. I have a certain style that I write with, which is a more narrative style of writing, and after I started to write there was a guy that I love, his name is Lauri Tuulik; he's an artist. I decided to see what it would be like to put my work together with images. I didn't want to make action described in the typical way comic books would describe. I wanted to do something that was more advanced and more adult. And thus went the idea to make this first Loaded book come from a three-part series.
CA: How is it different with working on music and working on the graphic novel?
MB: It's a totally different head space. When I'm creating sound, because I've been creating sound for my entire life, creating the graphic novel was more of a discovery process and it was just a beautiful discovery process. And it just formed a unique symbiotic relationship with the visual artists to be able to bring your words to life. I think it's conceptually fantastic to have thoughts in your head and write them down, and then they become visual. I think that's just a fantastic concept.
CA: Can you tell me a little bit about the characters? What's the story about?
MB: The first book is about a kid who grows up in New York, in Lower Manhattan, in the inner city and he's in gangs as a kid. When he gets to be a certain age and gets in a lot of trouble and goes to jail. Then, in jail, he gets the option to either join the military or to stay in prison. And he chooses the military. Because of the gang lifestyle that he lived, he excels at being a soldier. Then after the military, he goes on to become an assassin. It's kind of in the tradition of the James Bond and the Jason Bournes, but it takes you to the kid version. You know, when you see James Bond, you don't really get that much back story of what was it like when he was 15 or 16 years old. This is more like taking a peek into the backstory of an assassin and why they make the decisions that they do.
I spent a lot of time talking with soldiers --- guys who were in the military and just getting ideas of what military life is really like for them --- especially guys who are from the inner city. Guys who had grew up in a tough street environment and then went to the military. What was that life like? I got a lot of ideas from it and it helped me shape the character in the book.
CA: What's the main character's name?
MB: He has no name, he is a ghost. The book is called The Story of a Ghost because it's similar to the Sergio Leone's idea of the man with no name. It's so many different facets --- even when he goes to jail, he gets a fake ID that he's had for fake identification that he's had for years in case he got arrested. The idea is that you never really know who he is and he's slowly becoming invisible. As he becomes older, he starts working for more elite private organizations as an assassin. They prefer for him to remain anonymous. So the book is called The Story of a Ghost because he's not really a person that's on the radar or in the system or anything like that.
CA: You mentioned Sergio Leone's westerns, is there anything else you're influenced by?
MB: I've been very influenced by Sergio Leone's Man with No Name [series], but Akira Kurosawa has the "man with no name" in a bunch of his films as well. I've been very inspired by those two directors, and the kind of man who goes from place to place in different situations, and how he gets out of the situations. There was a certain honor code that also existed inside of those men. There was a system of honor code, a moral code.
CA: And now it's being adapted into a TV series?
MB: When I first made the book, when I first started writing, I had this idea that I wanted to write a script that I can direct and show to Eminem; that Eminem might try to play the lead character. And that's where it kind of started for me. At that time, I was working on rap with Aftermath with Dr. Dre and working a lot with Shady Records, and I wanted to create a world that would have subsided there. Many years later, I wasn't working there as much anymore and by the time I finished the book, I just liked it independently standing on its own, and before I presented it to anybody, I wanted to build up the IP itself to something really cool that people would want to be involved in.
I printed up a thousand books and my goal was not to go out and publish it, it was to make it this cool collector's item. So, the people who did the Oscars, they asked if we would have it in the Oscar bags in the gift bags. And then it got to a lot of actors and directors. At that point, I met a guy and he came on and he became the general manager of my company. And his idea was "Look, we can actually taking this around to some movie people and get their input." So we took it first to the people who rebooted the James Bond franchise. And they loved it. They thought it was great. They eventually connected us with a writer who helped to develop things for TV and movies with a guy named David C. Wilson, who recently wrote The Man From UNCLE. He also wrote The Thomas Crown Affair and a lot of great spy type of assassin type pieces.
As that started happening, we started getting more interest in people, more interest in cable companies and TV companies about turning it into a series or turning it into a movie or adding the next digital level to it. Now, it's starting to take fruition. We have our first offers come in from major film companies who want to get involved in Loaded, and turn the series it into a television cable kind of thing. There is a second book that's never been published before. There's only four or five copies which I want to keep it that way. I kind of send it out on a library card basis. It follows a woman by the name of Cynthia Sin and the second book is called The Story of Sin. This is what the TV show that we're building is about, that character. It's a female assassin character who's also a dominatrix who appears in book one.
CA: Will Ghost also appear in the TV series?
MB: Yes, yes.
CA: That sounds exciting.
MB: It's pretty exciting. We're adding a major music element to it. I want each television show to have a major artist participating in every episode musically. So like the first episode we might have Skyler Grey [and] a new video that would come from it. A second episode, we might have Dave Matthews, Dave Matthews might have a song for it. And then we put those together and we make an album at the end of the season.
CA: That'll be really cool.
MB: There are some music television projects these days like Empire but it's not a show anything like Empire per se. It's not a show where the music is the the main force of the show. The story is the main force of the show. It's serious drama dealing with some important current events and addressing some conspiracy theories around what's happening in the world today.
CA: What current events and conspiracy theories are you planning on addressing?
MB: We'll be addressing things like foreign exchange ideals, wars in other countries, drones, definitely the wars that went on in Iraq and Afghanistan. We're just delving into a lot of current event topics, very similar to how Vice News presents them, where they delve into things that really happened and not present it in a fluff way that sometimes we get from the news. These days we're getting the news, and three different channels will have three different stories of the same information. We want to find out where things are really happening and bring them inside of the graphic novel concept, and then bring that to television as well in an exciting and entertaining type of way.
CA: Dr. Dre is also involved in the music as well. How did that come about?
MB: Yes indeed. I went to see Dre when I got my first copy, and I sat down with him. He loved the book. He asked me what do I want to do? How do I want to progress? He has his show now, Vital Signs, and I'm actually working on his show and it's been a small progression. When the TV company started to come in serious and making offers, I went and had a meeting with him and said, "Look, would you be down to do a reading of the book, and just have you and me score that as something that combines hip-hop and classical music together?"
So it would be like a reading, and then you get the Dr. Dre beats and I'm going to get some great classical composers as well and compose some music myself. Then we will put together an audio presentation of the book first, and then let the audio that we develop slowly merge into the television show. He agreed to do it and did a nice little press release for us and took some photos with the book to show where he stands with it, so he's basically now on the Loaded team which is quite fantastic. (laughs)
CA: Are you planning on releasing the first book or the entire series for the public like physical copies?
MB: Yes, I want to put it in physical copies. The book that we're working on is the third chapter of the first book, which is the audio book that we're working on. What I'd like to do is put out just that chapter with physical copies just on CD, and also on vinyl as a package. I'm a real big fan of artistically holding things in your hand. I come from an album generation where you went to the store and you bought something just because you liked the cover of the album. Now, I think digital music has become a bit disposable because it's nothing that you hold in your hand actually. I'm keeping Loaded as physical as possible in its early stages. I'm not putting up a digital representation of the book. I want it to be an art piece that people hold in their hand. So physical copies will be the first method that it'll be released in. CDs and vinyl are a possibility before it goes to digital medium.
CA: Will you have paper version as well like the ones you gave out at the Grammys. Will those be available?
MB: Yes, they're kind of exclusive. I keep them close to me, I have about 400 left. I've seen them online in America and Europe going between $700-$1000. Some people sell their copies and other people look at it for the art piece that it is. My thing is to keep it as small. I have about 400 copies left and those are going to people who are friends, family, people in the industry, people who are close to me, people who are important to me. They get a copy of this one. And the second book, there's only four of them that exist. I let them read the book and they have to bring it back after they read it. I'm keeping it tight. I like it like that, I think it makes it more valuable.
CA: How is the TV series coming along?
MB: We're still in the development stage. We're just looking over our first serious proposals of people who want to develop it. Two film companies who want to develop it. We just started to look at it right now so I can't put a date on that I'm just saying that it's moving forward. I'm hoping that we have something up running by this year.
CA: How do you balance your time?
MB: I'm a creative person and I like to create. I think around 2010, 2011, I had some huge personal changes in my life. During that time, I wanted to develop something and I really went into writing for a while, so I would go on writing trips. But at the same time, the beauty of modern technology these days is on a laptop. I have a recording studio basically on my laptop with microphone, just plug in a USB mic and I'm writing songs and creating art. I think it's the beauty of technology these days. When I was younger, every time you wanted information you had to the library, you had to go through encyclopedias. When you wanted to record a song, you had to record a song, you had to rent a big studio for the day. Now, I get to just throw my laptop in the bag and go on a trip. It's three or four days on a trip, just writing songs and writing words and creating concepts and developing stories and things like that.
I think that with the development of digital technology, it doesn't make it --- there was a time that if you had to write you had to make time to write, if you wanted to make music, you had to make time for that. Anything you did, you had to block out a certain amount of hours, you had to write you had to do research. You couldn't just like Google something, you had to go to the library. At this point to me creatively, it's actually a lot of fun now in a time that it doesn't seem like I'm working 23 hours a day and sleeping one in order to be a writer, musician and a producer. It feels like it's all seamless and they all go together with me right now.
CA: Do you have any advice for young creators?
MB: To understand that in today's world there are no creative boundaries. If you speak English and you want to create something in Mandarin, there is no boundary. The creative boundaries now are so much more wide open then they ever were before if you want to be an artist and not have any limitations. Some of the great artists that I work with, great singers and songwriters, are painters. India Arie is a painter. Dave Matthews is a great visual artist. The artists I work with creatively, a lot of times, artistry is just what it is. Creativity is just what it is and if you sing, there's no reason why you shouldn't act, there's no reason why you shouldn't paint as well if those are part of your vision.