Rick Remender And Matteo Scalera On The Multiversal Journey Of Redemption In ‘Black Science’ [Interview]
Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera's Black Science is one of the most inventive and gloriously bonkers ongoing series on the shelves right now, but it also has one of the biggest hearts and a truly resonant emotional impact.
The series follows anarchist scientist Grant McKay searching for a way home after being trapped with his children and crew in the strange alternate worlds of The Eververse. To mark the series' return to shelves today with Black Science #22, ComicsAlliance caught up with Remender and Scalera for an in-depth talk about the series so far, the fears and anxieties that inspired it, and of course, complex multiversal theory.
ComicsAlliance: Grant’s quest to make up for failing his family reminds me a lot of Heath from Fear Agent’s similar motivations. Is there a connective tissue that represents your own fears and anxieties?
Rick Remender: I think that there a bit different, at least from where they come from. When I was doing Fear Agent, I wasn’t a father yet. My daughter was born during the last bits of Fear Agent and there are definitely family aspects to both stories. I guess most everything I write does come back to family. In the case of Heath, I think that it was more grand, if that makes sense? In that he was somebody that had basically committed war crimes to save the Earth. He had lost his son, he was more of a damaged, hopeless, broken person who was already a million miles down the road that Grant kind of caught himself on.
I know that for me, one of my biggest fears was being absent for my kids’ lives, and I think that in the modern world and the career that I have, I have to work a lot and I noticed it was causing me a lot of anxiety. Especially when they were very young and I was working like an animal to provide for them and to try and build a financially stable life for them. My fear became that I would become this absentee father, and I did a lot of research into stuff like Alcoholics Anonymous --- my father was an alcoholic --- and the different aspects of co-dependency, which is another thing I’ve been writing a lot about in Tokyo Ghost.
With Grant, I wanted to explore somebody who had not lost their family like Heath had in Fear Agent, but somebody who had avoided their family and had done the thing I was most afraid I would do if I wasn’t careful. That was to prioritize providing and working for the family as opposed to being present and with the family. I found that fear and that anxiety of failing my kids in that way was really rich and fertile, and it was something I could write.
So I plugged all of those fears and anxieties into Grant, and I use him as sort of a cautionary tale as to what can happen if you forget that the most important thing in life is family. It’s very simple, it’s one of the tenets and one of the most important rules of life. Grant had lost sight of that. It was interesting because it allowed me to write from a place of something I had put a lot of thought into, and it was sort of in the back of my head as a terrible fear and also to give him an arc and something to solve in that aspect.
CA: Grant McKay isn’t always the protagonist of Black Science; it varies from issue to issue. Do you take different approaches depending on which character is the focus?
RR: One of the ways I wanted to set this apart from Fear Agent or Low or any number of science fiction things I’ve written, was I really wanted the ensemble cast to really get a decent amount of screen time and to feel fleshed out. When you’re writing a novel or you have a serialized television show like Game of Thrones, that’s pretty easy to do in terms of real estate. You have time to unpack these characters and you can really dig into each one of them. In a comic book where you have twenty-two to twenty-four pages, it can be quite difficult, I’ve found.
I wrote for about a year, before the book came out. I was writing bibles, and character worksheets for each of the cast members because I wanted to ensure that it wasn’t just Grant’s story. Grant is obviously the protagonist that we’re anchored with, and he’s the character it’s leaned the most towards, but I wrote backstories for all the cast members down to Ward, who suffered an unpleasant demise early in the series.
I found it to be enriching and frustrating as a writer. Enriching in the sense of the old glacier analogy where if you do your work, if you do your outlines, if you do your character worksheets; even if you only see a little of the glacier coming out of the water, you can tell that there’s the other two miles of it under the water. I think that really helped me to write the cast in a way that they felt like individual characters with individual motivations and likes and dislikes.
I was frustrated in that it was very difficult to find the real estate to tell all these stories that I’d come up with. I got a little worried into the second and third arc that we were jumping around to all these different characters and it was becoming claustrophobic, because a comic book isn’t a TV show. A TV show comes out every week, a TV show has a lot more time to unpack the moments and to drift from character to to character. So I ended up reworking a bit of the outline to zero in on Grant a little bit more. I had to pick, it was Kadir, Grant, Rebecca and now we’re going to be getting into a little bit more of some of the other cast members in the fifth arc. This is where we’re able to put optics on the rest of the cast a little bit more.
CA: A strange comparison that occurred to me with how you approach certain aspects of the cast is the TV show Orphan Black, where one actor plays multiple and wildly different roles. How do you approach different iterations of the same characters when it comes to alternate dimensions, both as a writer and as an artist?
RR: I’ve tried to be really careful with the alternate versions, where we see them but don’t spend a lot of time with them. That was a choice that I made because they begin to feel unreal, if that makes sense? Something like Orphan Black, they’re all clones and they’re in the same world, it all fits. They are all real, and that’s part of the intrigue of that series. I think what we have here is, I recognize that once you start throwing in too many alternate universe characters your core character begins to lose their relatability and you lose their uniqueness.
So, I had one story where alternate Sara, who is the wife of Grant, her and her husband --- an alternate Grant --- were sort of hunting Grant and his crew through the first couple of arcs. In my first draft of the outline, alt-Sara was going to stay with the cast for quite a while. Then I re-watched Sorcerer, which is a tremendous movie where characters are suddenly wiped out at moments that you never anticipate, and I sat down and started thinking about the alternate Sara, and there was something about having her stay with the team for too long that felt like it detracted from when we get back and actually reunite with the real Sara, the Sara from our world.
So I’ve tried to be pretty careful with that stuff, because it can get heady, but it can also unplug you from the emotional motivation of the characters and your emotional connection to them. That said, when I do use the multiverse versions of characters coming up, we try to do it sparingly and make sure there’s a pretty good “get” from each one of them.
Matteo Scalera: My main goal at first is to make sure that the reader doesn’t get confused and it’s clear who’s who. The best way to do that is working on the character’s outfit and hairstyle, which also allows me to be always interested in what I’m drawing. One of the most difficult things in being a comic book artist is drawing the same characters hundreds of times, which could be pretty boring, even if you like those characters a lot. Changing their outfits is somehow like inventing a different new character, and it could be really helpful.
CA: Black Science is a book where no-one is safe. Do you ever agonize over killing off a particular cast member, or does the nature of the Eververse provide some comfort?
RR: That’s the danger, if you treat your characters as if they’re dispensable in a way that you can just replace them with another version from another dimension, then it sort of detracts from the overall stakes. When we meet the alt-Ward, we’d never got to meet Ward all that well. Ward was the lantern-jawed bestubbled man-of-action hero who was going to keep them all safe, but due to Kadir’s self-preservation and cowardice, Ward died earliy in the series leaving them without a hero to protect them. In bringing Ward back a little bit later like I did and having him fight Kadir, there was context there, at least for Kadir.
I considered keeping Ward with the team, but ultimately I decided what that does --- in a pretty big way --- is take the air out of the tires of the stakes with the characters. If I was to grow to love a character and then that character were to perish, but then a new version of that character popped up a couple of issues later, I’d feel robbed and cheated, is ultimately where I landed. So when I do use them, I want to have a contextual reason for it like the conflict between Ward and Kadir, that was a “get” that was sort of a pay-out from the first trade. Ultimately, that version of Ward, if he were to stay with the team and move forward with them, there’s something about that which I find unsatisfying, so while we meet alt-versions, those alt-versions will not take the place of characters that have perished or been lost along the way.
MS: Sometimes we discuss about who’s gonna die next! To be honest, we had one of those chats pretty recently. I remember being pretty sad when Rick told me he wanted to kill Ward in the first arc, ‘cause I really liked that character. Looking back at that, though, I think it was the right thing to do, just to make clear that nobody’s safe. When you suddenly kill the toughest dude in the crew, you send out a pretty strong message.
CA: What’s the collaboration process like when it comes to creating the weird and fantastical alternate worlds and creatures of the Eververse?
RR: It’s very collaborative; Matteo and I have become really good friends working together for the past... I guess it’s been four years now since Secret Avengers. I think one of the things that’s most important to me is to enjoy the collaborative process and find an energy between us where we’re both enthusiastic and excited about something, and that it doesn’t feel like I’m an egotist handing my “brilliant” ideas down to some artist to translate. That’s not what I got into comics for; for me it was a process of hanging out with friends when I was working in animation and cooking up ideas that we were so excited about that we had to make comic books. We had to get these ideas out in one form or another.
So I try to replicate that, especially in my creator owned books, and I work exclusively with people that I get along with on a personal level so that we can collaborate, and we can exchange ideas, and Matteo and I will get on Skype and I’ll talk to him about my ideas and where I see things going. I’ll tell him about creatures or worlds that I’m envisioning, and he’ll have takes on them.
I find that by the end of these conversations we’re both equally invested in what’s happening, and it’s ours. We co-own the book, we split everything evenly, and so when it comes to the joy of creation, I’ll come to him a lot of times and say, “Here’s a world where this exists, and this is happening, and this, and this, and it’s very strange,” and he’ll throw in his version and his ideas, and we’ll scrutinize both sides, and by the end of it we’re bouncing around like kids playing with Star Wars toys. When that happens, I think it always translates into better comic books, and those are the books that I feel like if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, those are the ones I’ll leave behind I know best represent my sensibility.
MS: In general, I like receiving some guidelines first, instead of just inventing a new dimension with new creatures and stuff from scratch. Usually Rick has an idea for a new world and/or situation, then he shares it with me, providing as much reference material as he can. Usually it’s paintings and illustrations, or scenes from a movie. Then, following those main guidelines, I try to make my version of them, adding my flavor to it.
CA: The nature of the Eververse itself fascinates me, especially the concept of the Onion. Did either of you do much reading on multiversal theory heading into the book?
MS: it’s all Rick and Sebastian Girner, our editor and good friend. I’m totally ignorant about that.
RR: Yeah, a ton! Not comic book versions either, the real versions. That was where I got the idea of The Onion and how it works, because one of the fascinating concepts to me that I really can’t get my head around is that every action and choice we make splinters off into another dimension that’s just a fraction of an atom away from us. So as I was building this, I wanted to do something unique with the multiversity concept and that led to the idea that if living creatures making choices splits off into other dimensions then living creatures are an element and the part of the universe. It kind of blew my mind thinking about the potential for that, and that led me to thinking that if you trace that back maybe where you end up is the first living creature making the first decision, or something like god, and I don’t want to spoil where we’re headed, but it led me to a number of other conclusions as well, and that led me to The Onion.
I wanted to get a visual sense of what The Eververse in Black Science could look like and how it was different, and that really seemed to me like these concentric circles zeroing down into the very first dimension, into the true prime dimension. I like the idea that our characters were not in the prime dimension, and the prime dimension was somewhere they were eventually going to travel to. I’ve hinted many times throughout the series that Grant has theories about what’s down there, and he’s worried about what’s down there. He’s worried about his interactions with it, and he needs to get to it for a reason. I’ve been sitting on that and hinting on it, but that’s something that we’ll get to in later volumes.
CA One thing that stands out to me is how nothing is wasted. Every new universe and encounter the League experiences ripples throughout the book. How detailed were the plans for the series from the beginning?
RR: That was something that was really important to me, that the worlds not be disposable and the characters we meet not be disposable. So as I structured the plot, I made sure that any world they traveled to either changed the characters or taught them something or they acquired something from the place, but it also had a greater narrative. The worlds fit into this notion, which is what the shaman kept telling Grant, which is, “This is Black Science. You should not be doing what you’re doing.”
It’s the unintended consequences of bringing foreign fauna and whatnot into another dimension, just as if you were travelling with animals to another continent. The unintended consequences are the most intriguing parts, it’s why it’s called Black Science. Grant wants to save the world from environmental catastrophe, he wants to find the cure for cancer, he wants to find the source for all these wonderful things; but he’s also an anarchist who’s playing it by his own rules, and I wanted to explore the consequences of that philosophy as well. So what he’s discovered is that on each one of these worlds, things that he’s done have set in motion threats and problems and caused damage.
We haven’t even begun to really see the catastrophes that they’ve left in their wake. We have seen that the world that they went to in the first trade --- where the sentient gas creatures inhabited the monkeys --- when he escaped from that place, he left a Pillar behind. It’s interesting that these characters were motivated to create a Pillar and managed to get their hands on one. Then Chandra, who was possessed by one of these gas creatures, she got her hands on a portable Pillar and she left to go home, to rejoin them. One of the Easter eggs there is that the sentient gas that Chandra was possessed by was an alternate version of Grant McKay from that world who was trying to build a Pillar. So Chandra went back to that world and then at the end of the first trade, we got to see those sentient gas creatures return to the Roman world as Chandra used the Pillar.
One of the attributes of life beyond propagation is expansion, and what we’re going to see is most everything that was set up in the first two trades, there are big plans for all that stuff, and none of it was happenstance in terms of the plotting. I’ve got a very big roadmap, and while everything I’m setting up is hopefully fun and exciting, the bigger responsibility is that each of those pieces fit together to make a larger pictures. So all of those things that we’ve seen and done and the people we’ve interacted with and the species with we’ve had contact with, there is a bigger picture to how it all fits together in the end.
MS: Obviously Rick is the big mind behind that. I just make sure that everything that we put on the table gets explained and properly solved sooner or later during the story. It’s something that I really care about. I hate when things get started during a story, and then they simply disappear; it makes me feel disrespected, fooled ... and it would break my heart knowing that I did that to my readers.
CA: Do you have a planned number of issues and a set ending for Black Science?
MS: We’re thinking about seven story arcs, which would be probably 36-37 issues. As for the ending, we haven’t set it up yet, we’re still sharing ideas about it.
RR: It really changes, and we make changes, like the Godworld story in my outline wasn’t going to be until the fifth trade, and then I recognized ... that by cutting it the story wasn’t greatly changed, and I condensed a few things. As I’m condensing and cutting and adding and shifting, the overall outline has changed a little bit. Right now I know the outline goes to around forty issues, it could be a little bit less than that, it could be a little bit more than that. It comes down to, when we get there, how much story is left to be told and how excited are we still about doing it?
CA: What can we expect from the next arc?
RR: The next arc is Grant’s journey to reunite with his family and crew. We saw him as he was reunited with Rebecca at the end of the last story, and how he chose to deal with her treachery. Next up, we will see where Pia landed, and we start to move the camera onto Grant’s daughter, Pia. She was sort of a background figure up until this point, and she’s going to get a large portion of the development, she becomes our anchor protagonist for a little bit of this as her story is developed.
She landed in a world populated by strange gods and other powerful creatures --- a very Jack Kirby-inspired world --- where she was beloved and welcomed. What we’ll see coming up with her is that she’s found a world where she’s cherished and she’s happy, but her dad --- who for most of her life been absentee and forced her to pick up the slack --- returns to try to save her and take her home.
That leads to some interesting conflicts and choices that both characters have to make, and some of the biggest changes in the book in #23 & #24. We hit the end of Grant’s arc, basically. It’s not the end of everything, but it’s a pretty big moment coming up for Grant. Then we’ll also put optics on our Earth for the first time, then we begin the big build for the big villain we’ve had percolating in the background for the entire series, who is Mr. Block.
He’s someone we’ve seen in other worlds. We’ve dealt with a millipede death cult version of Mr. Block. We’ve seen him in a futuristic Egypt. We’ve seen a number of versions of this character and we’re going to get to develop him a bit more and learn a lot about the program and the Pillar, about why Grant was hired and what Mr. Block was up to this entire time. So that’s all really exciting stuff coming up in this arc, as well as the biggest cliffhanger of the series so far when we get to #25 and #26, which leads into a lot of really wonderful payout, which for me is one of the most fun aspects of doing these very long form stories that you keep ongoing. Things that we’ve set up a couple of years back in the arc number two all of a sudden play a huge role in arc number five, and with all of the plot work and all of the planning, I think it’ll be a very satisfying story for people who have been sticking with us.
MS: Brian says to Grant in the pub scene, “You used to be a funny kid.” Well, we tried to bring back some humor in the story, especially in the first part of the arc. It’s something that we missed a bit in the past, because we were focused on the dangers of the Eververse. After that, we’ll have a lot of big surprises. I’m seriously looking forward to the readers' reactions!