Teenagers with powers are a staple of superhero comics, the origins of many established heroes, like Spider-Man, involving a responsible and unassuming teen acquiring incredible power, which they eventually use for the good of all mankind. Of course, in the real world teenagers aren't all responsible, upstanding and mature citizens, and they're not always ready to use their power for the greater good. This fact of life is something 12-Gauge Comics will to explore in its upcoming title "Afflicted."
Written by Shane Riches with art by Jose Holder, "Afflicted" reunites the creative team behind 12-Gauge's "R.P.M." to follow the journey of Madison Thomas, who has just moved to Yuma, Arizona following her mother's death. Madison falls for Kevin, the leader of the most feared clique in high school: teenagers with incredible powers. Through a chain of events, Madison gets powers of her own and has to decide what she wants to use them for.
"Afflicted" will see print as an original graphic novel in September, but also launches this week as part of 12-Gauge's latest digital initiative to help raise awareness and attention of the project in anticipation of the print release -- a first for the publisher.
CBR spoke with Riches about "Afflicted," his research into creating characters with believable powers, reuniting with artist Jose Holder, the graphic novel leading 12-Gauge's new digital initiative and why his story demonstrates that with great power comes great irresponsibility.
CBR News: Shane, what's the central concept of "Afflicted" and who are the main characters involved?
Shane Riches: "Afflicted" is an action-horror where teenagers with super-powers are the "monsters" we're afraid of. It follows a seventeen-year-old girl, Madison, and her twin brother, Lincoln, who just moved to a new city where Madison becomes afflicted with an amazing power after falling for Kevin, the leader of the most feared clique in high school -- but these teenagers are the anti-Peter Parker where instead of with great power comes great responsibility, it's with great power comes great irresponsibility.
I was lucky to be able to highlight most of the main characters in a series of teasers released this week. Take a look at them here:
Tell us a bit about Madison Thomas, the protagonist of the book. What brings her to Yuma, Arizona and how does she find herself with powers?
Madison's Straight Edge without the punk. She goes through all the horrors of high school faced by ordinary teenagers -- peer pressure, first love, bullying -- all while dealing with the added burden of getting powers that could turn her into a homicidal adrenaline junkie addicted to risk and pushing boundaries.
Her family moved to Yuma after the death of her mother -- sort of running away from the pain of their recent loss and figuring out their place in the world. After meeting Kevin at a party in the desert, she finds herself brought to an ancient site isolated in the desert that ends up giving her powers. But getting these powers isn't fun. It's frightening, hurts like hell and feels like it's going to kill her. It pretty much sucks and is a waking nightmare.
You've also got a semi-star-crossed lovers thing going on here between Madison and Kevin, the leader of the most feared clique in high school. How does that relationship help drive the story forward?
The best gritty horrors are grounded in "Romeo and Juliet" romances between conflicted characters. You look at the vampire craze right now -- whether it's "True Blood" or "Twilight" -- and there you have what are traditionally seen as monsters transformed into very enticing, sexy characters we want to see fall in love.
With "Afflicted," Madison is looking to rebuild after her mother's death and suddenly she has that once in a lifetime, love-at-first-sight moment with Kevin. No bones about it: These two were made for each other. But Kevin's already moving toward the dark side, which sets up the dynamic where Madison hopes she can bring him back to the light. And, in his heart of hearts, Kevin is hoping for the same thing -- although he might not know it yet. That primal emotion of falling in love becomes the driving force for all their subsequent actions.
What kinds of powers will readers see during the course of "Afflicted?"
One of the real pleasures of inverting traditional super powers in comic book form was taking recognizable, iconic powers and giving them to maniacal teenagers. That said, I ground the powers in pseudo-biology -- amped up cellular kinetics mixed with bioelectromagnetism. So, "Afflicted" has extreme uses of static electricity, friction for fire, vicious banshee screams, Wolverine in a teenage girl's body, flight based on riding magnetic waves and a guy who can increase the biomass of his skin to the point where he looks like syphilis on acid.
Old school readers will have a lot of fun picking out nods and Easter eggs to classic archetypes shown in a completely novel and horrific light. It was extraordinarily important "Afflicted" pay homage to comic book history and what came before it -- and you'll find references to everything from comic book boxes to video games, from classic covers hidden in Indian petroglyphs to a few well-placed, recognizable sound effects and sayings. Whether someone is a DC or Marvel fan -- or even just pop culture in general -- there are a lot of fun gems hiding in the book.
So, "Afflicted" explores the concept of irresponsible teenagers with powers -- something that's the polar opposite of most traditional superhero comics. What drove you to explore this particular territory?
I'm a huge fan of horror and comic books. Always have been, always will be. It struck me that I had never seen a mesh of the two together (though since that time, "Chronicle" hit theaters -- but that's an entirely different animal). I originally saw "Afflicted" as a modern version of "The Lost Boys" with super-powers, but it morphed into something hopefully bigger and more original where I could go topsy-turvy on the traditional good vs. evil aspect of super powers and transform those powers into something absolutely terrifying akin to the best horror movies and monsters.
Seriously, think back on your own high school experiences and ask yourself one simple question: Would it have been a good thing if your average classmate gained a super power? It's nice in comic books that teenagers get powers, put on costumes and run around and fight crime. But I think in the real world many teenagers would basically use powers as an excuse to do whatever they wanted.
I love taking the amazing, the uncanny, the incredible and the fantastic and transporting those all-star abilities on seventeen year olds in the "real world." These leads aren't interested in justice or avenging anything. They're interested in dating, having fun and dealing with life during that hazy age when you're not quite an adult but desperately try to act like one. Plus, they have enough power to level an entire city -- and might just do exactly that.
how did you settle on placing the story in Yuma, Arizona as opposed to a fictional location?
I wanted someplace that was completely stark and isolated. If you've ever been to Yuma, even though it has a population of nearly 100,000, it feels desolate. In the middle of the desert. A one-freeway town right along the border with Mexico, with a 100-mile border fence that makes the area seem like a virtual prison and adds to the entrapment one already feels as a teenager. Plus, I love saguaro cacti. There's something very spooky and crucifix-esque about them. That thinking was probably inspired by Ted DeGrazia paintings. There's one scene in particular that uses a saguaro to great effect. I can't wait for people to read it.
As far as not using a fictional location, I enjoy grounding super powers in reality and using real life locations works toward that goal. My brother, Victor, did that in "The Safest Place" with San Francisco. Mick Foley and I did it with Boston and the east coast in "R.P.M." Using a real city like Yuma makes the horror and the action in "Afflicted" all the more genuine and frightening.
You've reunited with Jose Holder, the artist on "R.P.M." for "Afflicted." Why did you feel his style was most appropriate to bring your story to life?
Because Jose actually does have style. Too many artists these days seem to render the same vanilla, cookie-cutter super heroic poses that I've been seeing since I was four years old. While Jose can certainly excel at traditional super hero illustrations, I knew he could also capture the stark horror elements so vital to "Afflicted." Jose's got this wicked mixture of Mike Mignola and Walter Simonson that puts you on the edge of your seat during the scary moments but then makes you fall in love with the characters at the quieter times. Jose's going to turn a lot of heads in the industry with his stellar work on "Afflicted."
Also, after "R.P.M.," Jose and I have a great shorthand with each other. He understood what I needed this book to look like and his enthusiasm for my characters can be seen on every page. His action scenes are off the charts and his layouts make for a crisp, fun read. Someone else just compared his teasers for "Afflicted" to John McCrea and Duncan Fegredo. I think that's apt.
Plus, we were very fortunate to have Andrew Covalt on colors. I'd already worked with Andrew on Keith Champagne's "Death Valley," and his work blew me away. For "Afflicted," Andrew used amazing contrasts between light and dark that really make Jose's art pop and added to the thrill factor. He knows how to color to the illustrator's lines and styles rather than just tossing random colors at the page. And then we had the terrific Steve Wands on letters who brought my words to life in a slick, clean read. You could give "Afflicted" to a ninety-year-old grandma and she'd be able to read it without getting confused. It's an awesome team all around. I'd love to work with all of them again.
What did you find most challenging in crafting the story of "Afflicted?"
For the book to be frightening, it was important to have the leads do horrific actions. At the same time, I wanted readers to fall in love with Madison and Kevin as they fell in love. It was a huge hurdle to ensure that readers still rooted for the Madison/Kevin romance even knowing that Kevin was involved in terrifying activities. Fortunately, addressing that challenge also gave way to what I think one of the great reveals in "Afflicted." The ending definitely has a couple of nice surprises.
"Afflicted" will be released both in print and digitally -- was there anything you had to take into consideration for the two separate formats?
I just feel honored that Keven Gardner chose this book to be his inaugural launch for 12 Gauge to go digital-first --available now on Facebook, iBook, Kindle, all the major listings -- followed by the print run in early September. You've got to give Keven a lot of credit for embracing the new technology and seeing if we can open up a few doors for new fans to enjoy graphic novels. That said, 12 Gauge has structured the launch in a way that by the time the print version comes out in September, retailers will benefit huge from the buzz, goodwill and publicity from the digital release.
I'm not a fan of the digital vs. print debate. It's a misnomer. It's not one or the other. Both can and should succeed simultaneously with the right marketing and distribution plan -- which I believe 12 Gauge has implemented with "Afflicted." More independent publishers need to have the courage to go out there and start making retail and digital work together.
As far as any consideration between the separate formats, I crafted "Afflicted" for all readers -- so it's accessible to someone who's never read a comic book before, but long-time comic book fans can pick up on things that new collectors may miss. Readers are sophisticated enough now with comic books on their iPads and Kindles that there wasn't much I had to do other than have the files converted. I can't wait for people to start downloading and enjoying the series today, and then pick up their hard copy in September.
"Afflicted" will be available digitally from 12-Gauge later this week with a print collection due in September.