‘Morning Glories': Nick Spencer On The Changing Seasons [Interview]
The hour of the Morning Glories season finale isn't just near - it's already upon us.
Last week, Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma's ongoing series about boarding school students steeped in sinister secrets wrapped up what the creators have called "season one" with Morning Glories #25. The double-sized issue closed some doors, left several wide open and opened brand-new portals into the great unknown surrounding Morning Glory Academy and the heroes at the heart of its drama. But there's no time to rest, not with so many lives in the balance: with season one under their belt, it's full-steam ahead for the Morning Glories creative team as they launch season two in April with issue #26, described by Image as "a special, full-sized, impossibly priced $1 prelude" to the next chapter of the story. [Potentially massive spoilers after the cut]As season one ends and season two looms on the horizon, ComicsAlliance reached out to Spencer to get his take on crafting a season finale, the nature and frustrations of mystery-driven storytelling, how he sees Morning Glories in relation to TV shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica, and when readers are finally going to get some frakkin' answers.
ComicsAlliance: Morning Glories has drawn comparisons to Lost since before the first issue even arrived. When you're approaching issue #25 - your first season finale - how much was Lost, or any other show for that matter, on your mind as a guidepost for how to wrap up a season?
Nick Spencer: It's a good question. I actually have been doing a lot of TV rewatches recently. A semi-annual Lost rewatch. I rewatched Carnivale and Battlestar Galactica. When you're watching all of these things and you're writing a book like Morning Glories, which is about as TV-inspired as a comic can be, to be fair, you obviously compare your plans and scripts against these finales. Our finale didn't end up being very much like the season one Lost finale. I did think it was a little more like the first BSG finale: Starbuck is stuck down on Caprica with Helo, and it ends with Sharon shooting Adama. There's something about the scattershot nature of that finale that when I saw it... I had already written #25, but I felt it was close. And season two of BSG picks up a little bit like how season two picks up for Morning Glories.
That's probably the closest comparison point. There's a cast that's very much split up over a few locations. There are internal conflicts between the different cast members. They all end in points of either weirdness or chaos, which I worried about a lot with the end of #25. One thing that's been happening ever since I said that the season will run 25 issues, is some people said, "Okay, then I'm going to read through #25, and I'm expecting some answers and a sense of closure on some things." You could see that in the reader community and the audience responses. Now that it's out there, I think people can see that that's not necessarily the nature of #25. There wasn't a scene where somebody sat someone down and gave ten pages worth of explanation...
CA: Well, you almost had that moment, with Jade and Hunter...
NS: Almost! [Laughs] Actually, in this issue, we flirted with that a couple of times. I'd be lying if I said while writing it I didn't stop and think, "Well, you can do this for two pages, or four, you can sneak some more in..." But ultimately, it felt more important that these various story points came to a head. I felt it was more important to leave you desperate to get to #26. I obviously have to keep in mind that this is season one of many. It's easy to confuse a season end with a series end. And that's not necessarily what this issue is.
But at the same time, I really think, personally, that the first half - the first 20 pages or so - are, in a sense, one big answer. We're taking a bunch of disparate plot points in the book and we put them in order and we show you the cause and effect of each one. I felt like that was maybe the most important thing to do at this point. We'd thrown out so much: what were the Truants doing before the Glories got [to the school]? What happened to Abraham that led him to that cell? We'd thrown all these things out, and I think the first half of this issue, a lot of it is stuff that people who are intense and studious readers ... a lot of things in the first half, those readers probably already knew and had pieced together. But for the broader readership especially, it was a good time to sort of say, "Okay, Action A created Instance B, and this is how it all came to a head." I think by the end of those first 20 pages, you hopefully have a sense of that. All of these things were connected and part of the same chain of events. It wasn't helter skelter. That was my big goal.
In my mind, there are two types of Morning Glories issues. There are the ones like you saw in the second arc of the series, that are very much focused on one particular character and their back story and how it impacts the current story. Then you have these more chaotic issues that bounce around the different members of the cast, a series of different events all coming to similar heads. Between issue #24 and #25, I think we did both models. This one is much more checking in with each story-point, with all the players on the board. But by the end of the issue and where we leave it on the last page, you sort of see how all the dominoes are starting to hit each other. What Irina is doing has collided with what Ike is doing. That's impacting what Hunter is doing. That in turn leads to what Casey is doing. Casey was the very distant piece on the board that obviously needed to come back into play soon, so that was our ace in the hole to bring it all together.
CA: Sticking with some of the comparisons we've already made, does the jump between seasons one and two of Morning Glories fall closer in line with seasons one and two of Lost - ending with the hatch opening, and starting back up immediately inside of the hatch - or seasons two and three of BSG - ending with the Cylons invading New Caprica, and picking up well into the occupation?
NS: It's a tricky one, because in much the same way that #24 and #25 were both part of the season finale, that's even more so the case with the start of season two, where #26 - #28 are all connected. They won't read quite right unless they're read together. It's a beast. In total, it's a 105-page story. Don't get me wrong, I think people will enjoy reading it month-to-month, but I think the intended effect of that story won't be apparent until it's all read together. And then there's an epilogue in #29 that comprises the volume five trade - the volume five trade is only four issues - and that one trade is kind of like the season premiere. It's a little bit of both, then. #26 is one of my favorite issues so far. I'm crazy-excited for that one to get out there. I had a blast working on it. It has more answers per page than we've done for quite a while. There's a lot of small things, detail mysteries, that we clear up in very short order, and that was fun. That will launch into #27 and #28, very much a continuation of #25.
CA: Looking at the core cast of the book ... we began with six original Glories, and after Zoe's death, we're down to five. We might even be down to four, depending on what happened to Ike. The credits page of each issue always includes the six of those characters right up top - even Zoe, who has been dead for an entire arc now. As you move into season two, has your outlook about this book's core cast changed? Are you adding new "series regulars" onto the credits page?
NS: That's something we'll be updating with season two, I think. The cast is much larger than it was when the book started. The Truants are a permanent part of the book now. They're not going to disappear. They've become permanent, major cast members. One of the things I'm really excited about, when we get past the season two premiere ... the issues of this series I'm still the most proud of are from the second arc, the individual spotlight issues. I introduced the first of the Truants back in #18 in terms of them actually getting camera time - well, they were in #1 - but their story came into focus beginning with #18. I'm really excited to give them the same treatment we gave the Glories back in arc two. The Truants have had to pick up a lot of story weight before readers got to know them too well. I think the hardest issues for us, the ones that didn't work quite as well, are #22 and #23, which I think are good issues and I'm proud of them, but it was hard to ask people to spend so much time with cast members they don't know very well without Ike or Casey. Getting people up to that level of passion and interest with these characters is one of the big focuses of season two. I'm excited to get to that. They're major parts of the book now.
CA: So, we shouldn't worry about Tailies Syndrome, like on Lost? You're not introducing all of these new characters and killing them all off by the end of season two?
NS: [Laughs] Well, we don't have to deal with contracts for the cast members, so they're as safe as anybody is safe. They certainly weren't introduced to up the body count. They all have their own stories and it's going to take some time to tell them. I'm not saying that all of them are fine - that's certainly not the case - but some of these people are definitely going to be around for a good, long while.
CA: Two of the Truants, Vanessa and Akiko, are, as you mentioned, part of this series from the very first issue. I'm interested in your process here, of building the mysteries of the book. When you got to the point where you were developing the Truants characters, was it a case of, "Oh, I can use these characters from the first issue," or when you were writing that very first issue, did you already know that these two people would play a central role later on in the book? How much was this a matter of rolling with how the story is moving, and how much were these two part of the plan from day one?
NS: I think it's been five years since I wrote the first issue. It's an insane amount of time ago that I wrote it. It's tricky, because I knew even when I wrote it, I didn't have a comics credit to my name ... but back then, the idea of saying, "Oh, I'm going to get to do this for 100+ issues," was a really pretentious thing to think at that point. So I tried to write it so that it could scale, so it could end at #12 or #25, or it could keep going. The Truants were on my mind when I wrote that first scene. And I wanted to do the first scene of Star Wars. It's all intended to be like that. But obviously, when you write a scene like that, you think, "Well, these characters have interesting stories." It was always in my head to try and circle back on those characters.
And then the idea for Irina, especially, came pretty early in the story as well. The idea of having an escaped student hiding out in the woods, picking out guards and terrorizing the academy ... there was something nicely Peter Pan about that idea. Her I seeded very early. The first time we make an inference to her is back in issue #4, I think. It's there, when Daramount is talking to Gribbs, and she mentions that Casey reminds her of someone, and Gribbs cuts the conversation off - they aren't even willing to say Irina's name, for fear they're being listened to. That was the first appearance of Irina within the story. There are a couple of other little moments long before she actually made an appearance. So a lot of these characters were conceived pretty early on, but others came as we went.
CA: In going back to issue #1 recently, I was struck by two scenes: one in which Ike's mother asks, almost as an aside at the time, if he killed his father - which, we learn in the season finale, he did - and another where Ike refers to Jun and Hunter as "Brokeback bunk beds," a possible reference to Jun's sexual orientation, which wasn't revealed until fairly recently. I guess my question is the same as the last one: were these clues for reveals you had in the works, or did you realize later on that you had these early moments you could now start playing with?
NS: I wanted to establish very on in the book that Ike has fantastic gay-dar. I needed that to pay off for a couple of seasons down the road, so that was important. [Laughs] No, on the more serious side of the question, yes and no. Jun's sexual orientation was pretty early. That seemed like part of the character from day one. The Ike and Abraham stuff, and I've said this before, it's a part of the story that grew over time and became more important to the central story over time. It was always there. It was always a part of it. But Abraham is very much a part of the story that, maybe if you had asked me back around issue #1, I would have said, "That's an arc." Instead, that's become one of the overriding storylines of the book for a very long time. Because really, Abraham in that cell, is pretty much the impetus for everything in the book from #11 on. Nearly everything happens because either Abraham has sent the Truants to the academy, or simply because he's in that cell. Almost everything comes back to that. So it's a little bit of both, really. So much of what I'm doing now is moving around the order of things and deciding on things that have already been determined, when to put them forward. Not much changes at this point, but the order in which I show them in might.
CA: Reading issue #25, I was reminded of the last time you and I spoke. We did an interview for MTV about the death of Zoe, and you admitted that you "flirted with the idea" of killing Hunter off in that issue. But clearly, unless Adult Jade is blowing smoke up his ass, Hunter has a crucial role in the long-game mysteries surrounding Morning Glory Academy. So if you contemplated killing Hunter off back in issue #19, even if it was just a brief consideration, how would that have affected your long-term plans? Are there ways to tell that story if Hunter hadn't survived?
NS: I would say if I had made that decision about Hunter - which, again was more of a flirtation than anything - there were story reasons why Hunter was probably not the person to kill there. But it's really funny. Sometimes you'll see online, "Well, he's written himself into a corner! He's making it up as he goes along!" And I'll think, "You understand that everything you've ever read has been made up as it goes along, right?" I'm not arguing that I'm dealing with any kind of objective reality here. I definitely make some things up as I go. [Laughs] But there would have been other ways to tell that story if Hunter was off the table. And just because he would have been off the table, doesn't mean Hunter isn't an integral part of the story going forward. I can say the same thing about Zoe. That doesn't have to necessarily mean, "Oh, there's time travel in the book, so we can bring you Past Zoe." The nature of a story like this, where the timeline skews - without giving away too much - certain characters can have cause-and-effect scenarios without them being living, walking, breathing people anymore. So, would it have changed the trajectory of that arc and what could happen there? Yes. Would it have changed the broader, where-it's-going point? No, I could have pulled that off. But it would have been more work for me, so that's why I killed Zoe. [Laughs]
I think with these questions, you're circling the same thing: are you maybe throwing things in front of yourself, and then going and picking it up when you need it? And sure, that happens sometimes. I can think of those times. I never put anything into the book where I have said, "Well, I have no f*cking clue what that is, but it would be cool!" I have yet to do that. But usually, it comes with how exactly defined the things are. You want to leave yourself enough room so that 30 issues later, coming back to a point isn't just dictation of a memory. "Well, I said I was going to do this, so..." You want to leave yourself room to flesh things out and add things so that it's still interesting to write month-to-month, but you want to have a firm-enough idea so you don't have to figure out what the doughnut is now. You don't want to be stuck like that.
The closest, scariest moment of season one was the end of issue #14, where the sky splits - it goes dark for Zoe and Hunter and Jun, but it's daylight for the teachers. That was the most stressful moment of the book for me. I knew what it was, I knew this was something the Truants had done to separate the kids from the teachers and what their overarching goals were. But I also knew I was entering a very convoluted, multi-tiered story the second I did that. Until I did that, that whole Woodrun arc could have played out much simpler and a lot shorter.
CA: Really, the Woodrun arc isn't even done yet.
NS: Yep, we're still in it. There's a moment in #27 that I'll give away. A couple of characters come out of the woods, and it was really hard not to write for one of them to say, "Thank God we're out of the f*cking woods." [Laughs] You know? Because at that point, I think all of the characters are out of tree territory, and I felt relief for Joe and [colorist Alex Sollazzo]. If they never have to draw or color another tree, they'll be very happy. But it was like, okay, we're locked in now for a very long period of time, and there's a lot of factors to this plan. That's still something I come back to and I think I could have gone down Path A or Path B. That's the closest I've ever felt to, "Oh, sh*t. I just threw something ahead." None of it was made up in the way that term's sort of abused. It was more that we were now set down a certain path. And in a way, I think that's almost a trickier bit. Sometimes you just circle things because you don't want to close that door. Looking at a lot of long-form mysteries, and having written this for as long as I have, I can see that now. I can see that somebody said, "Well, let's do that next year." I think that's one of the trickiest things, knowing when to do that and when to come clean.
CA: Alright, I'm going to ask you about some of the book's biggest mysteries, and when we're finally going to get some frickin' answers. Your responses are limited to "soon," "later," "much later" and "never." Cool?
NS: Okay, but I should put a disclaimer on this: I reserve the right to change my mind. But sure!
CA: Okay. When will we learn what Casey's been up to?
NS: Very soon. That's very soon.
CA: When will we learn a big reveal about David?
NS: Um... what were my options again? [Laughs] Somewhere between later and much later.
CA: The identity of the Headmaster.
NS: [Pauses] Probably closer to much later.
CA: The deal with Zoe.
CA: Julie Hayes from issue #7. When are we getting back to her?
NS: Soon, with the possibility of later. [Laughs] Probably soon.
CA: And finally, the spinning cylinder.
NS: Much later.
CA: Wrapping up, you now have a full season of Morning Glories under the belt. As you start moving into season two, what are the big lessons and take-aways from your experience on the first 25 issues of the series?
NS: I'm pretty proud of the first season. We accomplished a lot and we covered a lot of ground, and it's a rewarding feeling. And I'm glad we set up these markers to sort of chart the progress. It's been good for everyone to have that feeling of hitting a milestone. But of course there are a lot of things that, if you want to take a critical eye to your work - which you should - that there are little things we could have done better. Like what we just talked about: I think, to some extent, we made the Truants' plan a little more complicated and a little too vague as it went along than it should have been. There's a lot of coulda-shoulda-woulda after we did the second arc: should we have brought just the six of the Glories back together for four or five issues, would that have helped us for when we split them apart some more? There's stuff like that. But I think we've done a very, very good job of establishing our characters and making people care about them. ... Going forward, I have every hope that season two will be better than season one, and I think we can do that. I think we're better storytellers than when we started.
Outside of the book itself, the fandom for this thing, the community around this book, is so amazing to me. That's the most rewarding part of all this: the fantastic annotation at Study Hall, and the Tiny Chats we've started over the past few issues where we're gathering with the fans and talking over there, the Tumblr tag... all of this stuff that's sprung up around the book, it's incredible to me. I don't think that any book has the infrastructure and community and analysis around it that Morning Glories has. That's surpassed anything I ever dreamed of. I look at that and say, "I wouldn't trade my career with anybody's, just because no one else writes this book."
When we started, the first year, and especially the first few months, the book was a bit of a phenomenon. All eyes were on it. That was very nice, but it was doomed to fade. This story was going to get crazier and more complicated and people were going to check out, and sure enough, they did. The most disheartening stuff was when I was in the second arc, writing the stories I was most excited about... that's when we saw heavy attrition, people going, "They're just making this sh*t up as they go, there's mystery after mystery with no closure." You'd see that all the time from the "stack readers," who the book is never built for and is never going to be enjoyed by. You'll post this article, and somebody in the comments will say, "I dropped this book in issue #8!" That follows me everywhere! [Laughs] I think most of the people reading the book now, they don't think that, but there are people who brought the jury in on it early. I think it was after issue #3, I saw somebody on a message board saying, "We better start getting some answers soon!" And I just thought, "Well, here we go. Get ready to hear that for the rest of your life." But this book, it's a dream for me. It's everything I could ask for in a project and a story to tell. Unless the bottom falls out and we go wrong, we're going to get to tell this story the way we want to tell it. To have that luxury now, that we'll be able to do this with some very dedicated readers ... that's amazing. I'm pretty happy.