What if contracting a fatal sexually transmitted disease ended up being the best thing that ever happened to you?
That's the question at the heart of "Death Sentence" – a new ongoing comic from newcomers Monty Nero and Mike Dowling launching in the brand new volume of Mark Millar and Titan Publishing's "CLiNT" comics magazine. The comic shows a world where the STD G-plus gives its victims amazing powers and abilities only to kill them six months later.
This May, the magazine which has been on newsstands in the U.K. for over a year and seeing simultaneous release in U.S. comic shops since the beginning of this year will relaunch with a new issue #1, new features including Millarworld properties like "The Secret Service" with Dave Gibbons and "Supercrooks" with Leinil Yu and a few other graphic surprises.
To get a look inside the next phase of the magazine, CBR News is presenting CLiNT WEEK with a full look inside the first issue. After yesterday's catch up with Millar, today Nero and Dowling (already known to some "CLiNT" readers for his work on the "Rex Royd" strip) stop in to tell the origin of the G-plus virus, the interior lives of its main cast – everygirl Varity, rock star Weasel and comedian Monty – and explain how keeping creativity high is a mission both inside the comic and out.
CBR News: So let's start at the beginning, how did the idea of a superpowered HIV get rolling?
Monty Nero: I had the idea on the way home from the Hi-Ex comic con - which is the most enjoyable con in the world by the way. I'd been talking to people about how the comics I was reading didn't seem to reflect the world around us: the language; the tone - the real interests we all share. On the drive home I realised that I had to put my money where my mouth was. My wife was three months pregnant at the time and everyone was telling me that my life would effectively be over in six months.
Mike Dowling: You may want to qualify at this point that having a baby is not a death sentence
Nero: [Laughs] That’s true. It’s been brilliant. But at the time it felt like I only had six months to do something creative – to make something of my life. And that's what "Death Sentence" is about: "Six months to live – what’re you gonna do?’ In my case I wanted to make a comic. In Verity’s case she wants to create great art. Weasel needs to record an album that doesn't suck before he dies, and it turns out Monty wants to subjugate the rest of us to his own desires. So it's about life, creativity, and what the point of it all is. The STD aspect throws up obstacles, conflicts – and some interesting dramatic choices: ‘What would you give up to be successful and talented? Would you catch or pass on the virus deliberately?"
So over the following weeks I worked out the plot and designed the three main characters. Finding the right tone took ages. The tone and attitude is the most original thing about it, I think. A month or so later at the UK con in Bristol I met Mike who blew me away with his art. It was The Splinter Cell stuff. I also heard about this new comic called "CLiNT." I went home from there and wrote a three page horror story called "The Hunt" about my abhorrence of chain hotels, and e-mailed Mike to ask him if he'd draw it.
Dowling: I thought it was cool. I really liked it.
Nero: That’s when I found out that you’d been hired by "CLiNT" to do "Rex Royd." You didn't have the time. So I drew the short myself and continued to write "Death Sentence." And I was buoyed that Mike liked my writing,
Dowling: Yeah, I was getting approached by a lot of people with scripts at that point because of the "CLiNT" thing. When I saw "Death Sentence" I was really excited. It was the best thing I’d been sent by a long way. So I asked the Com.X guys if they knew Monty, if he was alright. And they said "No." [Nero Laughs] No, they said they’d worked with you and you were above board!
Nero: Thank God. I didn’t know. Thank you, Eddie and Jon. I wanted to put all my creative energy into creating the best Death Sentence script possible, so I realised I shouldn’t draw it as well. I’m not talented enough to do that for something this ambitious. So I sent it to Mike in hope rather than expectation – because I knew he was busy.
Dowling: You sent ten pages through initially?
Nero: The synopsis, the character paintings, and the script
Dowling: It was obvious it was a great script, and I wanted to get on board. It reminded me of something like "Zenith" (a great 2000AD strip from the 90s). It really struck a chord.
Nero: You got quite enthused. You seemed to fall for it in the same way I’d fallen for your art – which is a great match for this. Luckily, the "Rex Royd" scripts were coming though very sporadically, and I had a shit load of material ready to go, so you were able to put a lot of love and attention into this over the past year or so. Anyone who hasn’t yet seen the pages will be really impressed with Mike’s art. He’s done an amazing job, really paid attention to the storytelling and character details, and its ended up ten times better than It would have been working on my own
Mark Millar has been famously crowing in interviews about reading the book for the first time at Kapow! and finding it to be the perfect fit for "CLiNT." What made you want to serialize into the magazine, and what about your sensibilities synch up so well with Mark's?
Nero: Yeah the whole Kapow! experience was amazing. We posted "Death Sentence" on the forums – sent it to every publisher in the UK and America – and as far as I'm aware it's still languishing unread in the slush pile at Image, Avatar, Dark horse, whatever. No one’s interested in new work from unknowns. So having been there before I resolved from the very start to self-publish. We'd got ten pages lettered, and I'd painted two covers, so I printed it into a preview comic to take to Kapow!. I bought my ticket, and Mike and I just wandered round the convention floor giving it to people.
One of those people was Mark Millar, who I accosted as he was running from a panel to change his shirt. I barely had time to hand him a copy and garble what I was about before he was out the convention door like a startled rabbit. He said he really liked the look of it and took a copy but generally people will lose your comic five minutes later at conventions. We worked really hard to make sure the comic looked totally professional so that people would hold onto it and open it. Then I made sure the first page really grabs you by the balls and keeps you turning the pages right through. Even so I expected nothing. The next day I'm settling my hotel bill when Mark steps out of a door and says "Are you the 'Death Sentence' guy? Your comic’s brilliant, man! I’d love to publish it in CLiNT.'" He’d read it while he was waiting for a panel to start. He’s one of the best writers in the world, endlessly creative, so realising that he likes your work is a wonderful moment. I found Mike drinking outside, the sun was shining, and we were ecstatic. Life is rarely so neat or dramatic. It was the perfect way to end the con – like a movie scene or something.
I also gave Nick Landau, who runs Titan, a copy by door-stopping him after the "CLiNT" panel – the one initially we couldn’t get into.
Dowling: Oh yeah. That was funny.
Nero: I had to talk our way in by pointing out Mike actually worked for "CLiNT."
Dowling: Yeah, but it worked out okay. Except half way through I was asked to join the panel, with Mark Millar and the comedian Stewart Lee, two of the most articulate and funny people you could ever meet. What am I going to talk about – sable No 2 brushes? I declined!
Nero: Yeah, you’re not big on self promotion. But you get loads of work. Is there a lesson there? Anyway, Nick took a copy and much later on rang me up to say he was really excited by it. He’s the guy that asked to see all the scripts. The fact that Nick bothered to read it all – and really liked it – means a lot to me. Most publishers don’t pay so much personal attention to the details.
As to why "CLiNT," well, the thing about self-publishing is no-one’s aware of your work. If quality was a guarantor of success scores of my favorite small press creators would be selling thousands every month. So serialising the strip in "CLiNT" is a great way to help the comic reach a wider audience.
Dowling: Yeah. "Death Sentence" has a brazen quality that fits quite well with "CLiNT." It’s about real people dealing with real consequences of these empowered situations.
Nero: To answer your question, Mark strikes me as massively enthusiastic about comics in general. If we share anything it’s a love and respect for great sequential storytelling and the ambition to try something new. As I said, "Death Sentence" is about creativity, the point of your life, and reflects the attitudes and moods we see around us. There's enough kinetic action and wit to make it highly entertaining but it's in no way a typical super powers comic. It’s for a much broader audience, addressing wider adult concerns. It's a natural fit.
In general, there are two big differences in G-plus virus from typical STDs. For one, there's the superpowers (of course). And for two, the victim's death brings a blaze of glory rather than a slow decline. What's at the heart of both of those elements of the story? Do the powers represent something specific about each character?
Nero: Both exist for same reasons. I've read a lot of HIV memoirs and viral theory, and it's grim stuff. There's no dramatic or moral dilemma, you desperately don't want an STD or a virus like that. But if you say "for six months you’ll feel fantastic, empowered, inspired and all your abilities will be supercharged so that you can achieve all your dreams" – then you have an intriguing dramatic proposition. There's a conflict there, choices to be made, personal and global ramifications – all the stuff that makes a gripping story. And each character paints a different side of the same story.
Dowling: Also it’s that thing where if you’re given unlimited power what do you do? How do you choose to change your life? What impulses which could never be acted on before are suddenly brought out in the most extreme way? You’re watching someone trying to get a grip on the moral essence of their own life, or watching them spiral off at the behest of their ego – it’s very compelling.
Nero: Yeah, like Frank Sinatra. He slept around and generally got away with whatever he could - but the rest of us don’t have those kind of temptations to deal with.
Dowling: It’s difficult to comprehend the terrible chore Frank’s life must have been!
Speaking of characters, let's talk a bit about each lead and get your guys' impressions on them. Verity Flett seems to be our everygal in some ways – an everyday person who finds herself with G-plus. What's that grounded point of view bring to the series, and what might people not expect about her as she comes to terms with this?
Nero: We explore this from all angles. Verity’s just like you or me – she's got this shitty temp job, crappy bedsit, and takes her pleasures from drinking, a night out, sex. Then she catches G-plus and her life’s turned upside down. Does she lie down and die? I mean life is constantly kicking most of us in the teeth, but we find the strength every day to keep going. Verity’s dead in six months and has achieved nothing in her life worth a damn – but she picks herself up and says "Fuck you! I'm not done yet." She wants to be an artist so her abilities centre on generating imagery. I won’t say more than that. She has a moral compass and a lot of empathy for others, so she's the everyman – the beating heart of the story. If you're dead in six months you don't have a lot to lose, so she surprises herself with some gutsy – almost suicidal – decisions in the later issues.
Dowling: She puts you in that situation "What would I do? How would I react?" All these issues are foisted upon you through her, as the story asks "Who am I really?" She could go either way!
Daniel "Weasel" Waissel seems to be the perfect example of how awful a life of sex, drugs and rock n roll can be. What is it about him that you're most intrigued by personally, and what about his situation makes for a good story?
Dowling: Weasel’s awesome. The thing about him is that it’s obvious he’s a good guy and his heart’s in the right place but he’s never stopped to consider that. His character’s been dragged down by his day to day existence. He’s in a pit, but there’s hope for redemption.
Nero: I love him too, and I’m interested you think that. John Wagner says his most successful characters were totally ambiguous as to whether they were good or evil, and Weasel does a lot of very questionable stuff. I deliberately left it open. He’s a rock star – a comically inept character. He's key to exploring the nihilistic and decadent attitudes that pervade our society. The idea that a life of sex drugs or endless parties is a desirable goal. A life like that looks great visually, as we see in most music videos, and it's entertaining – but it feels like shit after a few months. Weasel's envied and worshipped by fans the world over but he's not happy. He's creatively spent, knows he's dying, and just wants to create an album he can be truly proud of before he checks out. Unfortunately he's not talented enough to do that.
Dowling: [Laughs] I think we can all relate to that.
Nero: Absolutely! We’ve all been there. Weasel’s abilities aren’t musical, they develop in other areas. So we’re exploring the ramifications of an unfulfilled life - where ambition outstrips talent. And the also value we all collectively put on certain skills. Rock songs take talent – but they aren't particularly time consuming to write. Many of the classic rock or pop singles were written in under half an hour, sold multiple millions, and the lucky few can spend two years touring an album of fifteen songs round the world. The kudos, respect and riches that follow from a relatively swift act of musical creation are out of kilter with the enormous success which follows leaving lots of time for getting shitfaced, taking drugs, and generally feeling unworthy. I think that's why so many rock or pop stars live such unhappy lives and struggle with self-esteem. They’re disturbed by such an unhinged level of deference and adulation resting on such tenuous ground. Many end their lives early – deliberately or not. They tend to lose perspective and often lack humility. It's hugely entertaining for the rest of us looking in. We consume their lives avidly through music, concerts, TV, biographies, tabloid stories and so on. But at what cost? And why do we worship rock stars so - lending their lyrics an almost spiritual significance, congregating in stadiums to chant their names, treasuring their most obscure material? It says a lot about human nature, the magical allure of a rock stars apparent freedom, our need to join together in vast crowds and worship something. So Weasel allows us to explore all that.
Dowling: Yeah, you were talking the other day on twitter about listening to Nirvana. I think Nirvana and Kurt Cobain nailed what it like to be living at that particular time, it felt totally fresh, and the sensibilities in the lyrics hadn’t been put forward before. That’s why anyone at the time looked towards Nirvana as a lifeline. They clearly understood the way we were all living. And there’s a lot of that in the Weasel’s stuff.
Monty, I must admit that you naming the character Monty after yourself brought a smile to my face. Aside from being very vocal about G-plus with his fame, what's he got going on beyond the comedy exterior?
Dowling: Monty is just like you man, swanning around Dundee in leather trousers and an open blouse dancing to the beat of his own drum.
Nero: [Laughs] That’s me! And I guess I need to try harder with names. Monty’s a comedian and film star - the flip side of Weasel. Unlike Weasel he is genuinely talented and extremely creative, worshipped and adored with the ability to back it all up. So he’s very confident. Arrogant. In our culture, incredibly talented and successful people are often allowed to take liberties; they’re indulged and they live outside the normal boundaries. Monty is a highly entertaining and funny guy, but he’s also decadently aloof and incredibly selfish. Creativity can be selfish - every hour I spend writing this strip is an hour I’m not spending with my wife and daughter. It’s an hour in my own head, whether they’re in the room or not. Sometimes the most successful people are the most self-centred - messianic in their focus - burning through wives, friends and partners - but as long as they keep delivering the talent we don’t care. Make us laugh, score a goal, and we'll adore you. So what would happen if a character like that genuinely had no boundaries, if they became so powerful they had no need to take notice of our laws or feelings whatsoever? What happens when you become so successful you can indulge any whim, act out any fantasy. It's dramatic stuff - Monty’s a real villain - but one I hope we can all relate to and see the humanity within.
Dowling: He’s a mirror of the worst excesses of society. The more people laugh, the more he’s feted, the more he hates them.
The standout line I've heard from all this is "I'm not done yet." What does that idea mean to the book for each of you?
Dowling: It’s do with the fact that Verity’s life is going to end, and she has an opportunity to fix the things in her life that she doesn’t like. Resolve all the issues. It’s her last chance to really be herself.
Nero: Yeah I'm glad you liked that line. It's the key scene for me – the one that introduces all this subtext I’m talking about. Everything up to that point is, hopefully, highly entertaining – but that's the scene that touches on deeper themes. It builds subtly throughout, so by the resolution of the final episode you get an interesting perspective on what the point of life is. And there aren't many comics that give you that.
Dowling: It’s a great scene. You get to see her walk through central London and consider all the problems she sees internally, reflected in the city around her. It’s a mess and she knows this is her only chance to do something about it.
Overall, we get a lot of teases of a bigger picture behind what's obviously a dangerous disease. What can you say at this point about your long term plans for the story of "Death Sentence"?
Dowling: I think this is one for you.
Nero: The world, the virus, its origin, the forces dealing with it - it's all worked out. But explaining all that stuff upfront would be a dry read. So that information comes out as it needs to, whether to inform of keep you hooked. I provide some bonus materials with each issue for people that want to dig deeper. Check out http://www.sexhealth.org.uk/ for example. Otherwise we focus very intently on these three people and what it all means to them.
Their story escalates with each issue to a violent and profound conclusion. It ends up with some massive scale storytelling - cities crumbling and pitched street battles. Mike’s got some incredible scenes to draw.
Dowling: Which he doesn’t know about yet.
Nero: You’re going to hate me. After that there's another graphic novel of equal length which interweaves with the events of book one in a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern kind of way. It doesn't change anything but it adds layers and deeper resonances through a new story, expanding everything into a greater and much more complex narrative.
Dowling: It’s like "Back to The Future 2."
Nero: Fuck off.
Dowling: C’mon man! 2’s great. 2 is like a logic puzzle that fits perfectly into the first.
Nero: Right. Well I love "Back to the Future" so much, it’s my second favourite film of all time, that I can’t bring myself to watch the sequels. Every time I try I run squealing from the room. Why fuck with something perfect?
Dowling: Nooo!!! Go and watch it now. Actually I haven’t seen it in years. I’m sure it’s great though.
Nero: Okay, okay. But I’m not touching 3 with a shitty stick. Anyway, with "Death Sentence" I'd really like to do smaller scale stories. This is my first comic series, so we’ve gone large and put something in there for fans of superhero and mainstream fiction alike. Most people read both so it's not a stretch. If this strip isn’t successful no one will ever see the other stuff. To me, a more personal smaller story is just as dramatic. Once you've got an audience, got their attention, you can tell more subtle tales. G-plus enhances peoples abilities to varying levels – so some will just get fitter or much better at maths or something. Dying in six months but developing enhanced abilities is inherently compelling. You can apply it to any narrative - any situation – and make a fresh story. I could happily write "Death Sentence" stories for the rest of my life. As long as Mike draws them.
Dowling: Cool with me!
Stay tuned tomorrow for more on "Rex Royd" and the future of "CLiNT!"