And Then We Make His Night Worse: Ryan K. Lindsay on ‘Negative Space’ [Interview]
This week saw the release of the second issue of Negative Space, the sci-fi horror comic from Dark Horse, which features art by Owen Gieni (Manifest Destiny, Shutter) and story by Ryan K. Lindsay (Headspace, CMYK). The book centers on Guy Harris, a suicidally depressed man who discovers that his own dark emotions are being harvested by a secret corporation. ComicsAlliance spoke with Lindsay about what inspired the book, how he layers on the horror, and why he chose to step outside of his own experiences to write Guy.
ComicsAlliance: A notable aspect of the book is its indigenous lead character; what was the impetus for the decision, and how did you and Owen develop the character?
Ryan K Lindsay: The impetus really was that I believe in diversity, and I know it won’t happen by accident. It sounds crass, and like some form of narrative clickbait, but I honestly believe if we want to see change then we have to enact change. I’ve already written white male leads, because I’m a cliched idiot, and so I’d like to turn the tables around a little.
And I do this because over recent years social media has shown me how much having characters in media that reflect a wide range of backgrounds and cultures can mean so much to so many people. So, the opportunity to do something that means a whole hell of a lot to some people while not actually being that difficult to do on my end seems a no brainer.
From that impetus, the character of Guy Harris was allowed to grow between artist Owen Gieni and myself. When dealing with someone of Owen’s insane talent, it’s best to feed him a little and watch him blossom something way beyond your hopes. I told him the core tenets of Guy’s character and the initial character sketches were perfect.
CA: Do you have a personal connection to the indigenous community?
RKL: No, I’m an Australian guy with mixed English/New Zealand/Scottish heritage. But there’s been enough bearded white guys in and around comics that I was more than keen to shine the spotlight elsewhere.
CA: It was really interesting to see a character who, rather than embodying racial stereotypes, isn't actually textually identified as indigenous in any way; he's just very clearly visually Native American. How was this decision made?
RKL: I saw no need to be didactic about it. The same way Shane Garraty --- my lead in Headspace from Monkeybrain Comics/IDW --- was African American and we never really had to mention it, Guy Harris just is. His cultural background isn’t the core of the story, we aren’t going to explore his culture in specific ways through this story. Guy Harris is a character in a story before he needs to be anything else. Hell, for me to try and make him more feels like it’d actually be a little presumptuous, so I steered away from doing that with that in mind.
I also feel, if we push that cultural background/heritage into the story and promotion, and make it this big deal, then we aren’t really normalizing him or it in any way. We are making him the outsider still, even in his own tale. Or at least, that’s what I worry will happen. But I also worry that if no one knows we have made a book about this indigenous character who is also gay, then neither of those communities will find us or know that we are trying. I worry a lot, ha!
CA: Was there any specific care to avoid visual stereotypes, or any stereotypes in particular?
RKL: The biggest stereotype I was happy to avoid was that of the six-foot-tall six pack lead character. Having Guy be a larger gent, just tall and sturdy as a boat, was a way of giving him this weird sense of power. He might be called fat by some, but if he gets his hands on you he could probably crush you.
But insofar as aboriginal stereotypes, yeah, I didn’t want him to look like he’d stepped off the set of any old Western TV show from a million years ago. I didn’t want that image of the lean chieftain, nor the wise elder. Guy’s just this dude who’s run down, and likes 500 Days of Summer and wishes he didn’t hate himself.
CA: There are sort of two elements of horror introduced in the first issue, in succession. The first is almost an existential horror of the conspiracy theory variety, where everyone is in fact after you. Was there a decision to layer that into Guy's identity, both as an indigenous man and a member of the LGBT community, sort of a literal, horrifically exaggerated element of persecution?
RKL: There really wasn’t to be honest, and that’s because I’d hate to perpetuate the idea that everyone is or even might be out to get these people of different walks of life. The concept of maybe the paranoid being correct in their assumption that the world is out to get them was purely a way of personifying the world of depression. The feeling that those dark clouds circling in all around you are full of people laughing at you is pervasive; to find out they’re orchestrated and are just part of some ‘job’ is almost worse.
CA:There's a certain humor to the idea of creative people being harvested for their emotions. Is it hard to balance the comedy of that with a book that features depression and suicide so prominently?
RKL: I want the humor to just kind of be there, inherent. I’m rarely going to play things for the ‘laffs’ --- though there is a sweet joke in #2 I’m really proud of --- but I think that comedy and tragedy are so entwined that I don’t need to point and laugh at this guy wanting to kill himself and not being able to, I don’t need to have us all shoulder slapping at the fact he’s getting sh-- thrown at him. This book is funny in a way people won’t admit in real life because it’s sick and cruel and so are the depths of human intrigue and curiosity and black humor. So long as I remain true to the emotion, and respectful of the illness, then I think the rest is fair enough game.
CA: The second element of horror is introduced at the very end of the first issue, and I don't want to ruin it for the reader, but it's fun a very different way. Could you talk about developing and layering those different subgenres?
RKL: Whenever I sell someone on this book I tier the sell. First I say, “It’s about this guy who sits down to pen his suicide note and then gets writer’s block.” This nearly always gets a laugh or some other fantastic response from the person.
Then I tell them, “So he goes for a walk to clear his head, and we then make his night worse.” Then I simply point to the front cover and say, “And then these things tie into all that in a visceral and insane manner.” To which I’m always shocked that people are dying to see how something so gonzo could tie into this brutal human story.
In the end, I think people are a little relieved that there’s an element of the fantastical to this book. It tempers the jagged bottom of the human spirit which we are watching being extinguished. Science fiction has a long tradition of being able to grind up raw emotion and make you snort it before you realize it isn’t some party drug. Stories like Fear Agent and The Abyss and Casanova get to be about family and marriage and goddamn everything while also being spirited narratives with wild visuals. Like I said earlier, i don’t want to be didactic, I want to take you on a ride, and I want you to also be able to tangentially draw out things from the story as much as what you bring to it.
It’s like when I watched The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I cried my ass off both times. The first because I miss my father, and the second years later because I never want to leave my son. I want someone to be able to read Negative Space now, and then years from now, and have it hit them in different ways.
And to actually come close to answering your question, Philip K Dick is my spirit guide on these things. His books were so insane and yet were always completely about something. I study at the school of his meaningful sci fi.
CA: What was the genesis of the book?
RKL: I saw the very first page, Guy in his office, hitting a wall on his suicide note, and it throwing his whole plan out the window. From there, I just had to peel away the layers of the narrative and see why his note mattered, and who else might benefit from it occurring.
CA: Is there anything you hope this book offers that fans of the genre might not get from other stories?
RKL: Here we are dealing in real human emotions and story. We get fantastic, even bombastic, but at its core this is a book about humanity. This is Guy’s story and I think you’ll get this character study in depth where other stories focus on the story thrust a touch more once the narrative engine starts humming.
And you also get Owen Gieni’s art, which is just something you can’t get anywhere else at the moment at all. His work here is so damn fine as he’s nailing emotional beats, action sequences, and images of the grotesque. He’s a revelation, and I’m damn lucky to get to collaborate with him.