Michael Nelson On Breaking In, "War of the Worlds" and "X Isle"

Wed, April 5th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

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David Moran, Guest Contributor

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"War of the Worlds: Second Wave" #2 "War of the Worlds: Second Wave" #3
Life has a funny habit of leading us down paths we never thought to travel.

Case in point:

Michael Alan Nelson. He's the author of Boom! Studios new monthly ongoing series "War of the Worlds: Second Wave" and also a contributor to the publisher's popular "Zombie Tales" anthology series, as well as its upcoming "Cthulhu Tales" one-shot. As a young child growing up in the small town of Lake Village, Indiana, he probably never even considered that one day he'd be an up-and-coming comic book scribe living in the City of Angels.

In fact, up until several years ago, Nelson wasn't even an active comics reader, viewing (extraordinarily shortsightedly, he now admits) the medium and its entire assortment of offerings as merely "kids stuff" filled primarily by "boobs, capes and ka-POWS!" and therefore not worthy of his attention.

What changed for the writer?

A whole lot: including a divorce, a cross-country move, several career changes, and an almost heartrending, continuous stream of rejections from various agents and literary journals for his prose work.

But mainly it was Nelson's perception of all that comics were capable of offering as a storytelling medium and a form of artistic expression that served to do the trick.

And the 34-year old former High School English teacher claims that he owes his current comics career, as well as his late-20s acquired passion for the things, all to a pair of glasses.

Not just any old pair of glasses, either, Nelson wishes to point out.

No, the spectacles in question were in fact Superman's.

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"When I was very young, my family moved, pretty much, out to the middle of nowhere, this very, very small town out in the woods of Indiana. So, although I was familiar with comics through characters like Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, I certainly wasn't one of those kids who grew up actively reading their adventures," Nelson told CBR News. "We didn't have a comic shop in my town and all there was at the local library, I think, was a copy of one of the 'Elfquest' trades and an adaptation of the movie 'Alien,' and that was it. I mean, we were pretty isolated in a lot of respects where we lived - I can still remember having to drive, like, twenty miles just to get to the nearest K-Mart!

"But I've always been an avid reader. My dad got me into fantasy and Sci-fi at a pretty early age and I think I sort of always knew that I wanted to be a writer. Comics, however, were just things that were completely off of my radar until I moved out to Los Angeles in my late twenties and sort of 'discovered' them. That whole period in my life was very much a 'new beginning' for me, because I'd recently gone through a divorce, and I felt like a new scene, a chance to start over in a new city, in a new area of the country, with new people, finding a new job, making new friends, etc., was what I most needed at that point.

"So around the time that I first moved out to LA, I was invited to a dinner party one night, one that Mark Waid just happened to be at as well - this was around the time that Mark was getting ready to write 'Superman: Birthright' - and I remember that he started talking about Superman/Clark Kent and all the symbolism attached to his glasses. I sort of spied in on [Mark's] conversation - politely, of course - and, by the end of it, I was floored. And I mean floored. I had no idea that you could even do half the stuff that Mark was talking about doing in a comic book.

"See, I was very much the snotty English major type at that point (and for most of my early-adult life too), big into Shakespeare and James Joyce and all that sort of 'high literary' type stuff, I thought good writing mainly came down to making the words look pretty on the page (I really had no idea how to tell an actual story at this point), and my view of comic books were that they were intended for kids and that was about it, that there wasn't a whole lot of 'substance' or depth to any of them. So then I started talking to a friend of mine who I knew was a really big comic fan, about some of the stuff that I'd heard Mark talking about at the party, and all he said was, 'Well, duh!' So my friend gave me some books to read - I think the first 'Walking Dead' and 'Fables' trades - and I absolutely loved them, and wanted to get my hands on more right away."

From there, Nelson's friend began hooking him up with the "good stuff." Books from the likes of Stan Sakai ("Usagi Yojimbo"), Warren Ellis ("Whose work I absolutely love, by the way," said Nelson), Neil Gaiman, Brian Wood and, of course, Alan Moore.

"When my friend eventually handed me Watchmen to read, I really had no idea what to expect," admitted Nelson. "I mean, yeah, I'd sort of already heard a lot about it from everyone I'd been talking to at that time about comics, that it was suppose to be like the 'Holy Grail' of comic books and everything, but I still wasn't prepared for just how amazing the thing truly was. I can honestly say that reading it was one of those visceral moments in my life. Just layer upon layer upon layer of brilliance shone through the thing.

"After that I was hooked, no other word for it. I knew that someday I wanted to write comics myself, if only to try and tell a story that was one one-hundredth as brilliant, compelling and heartfelt as some of the stuff in the field that I'd already read."

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Nelson also cites his late to life "discovery" of comics and the wildly unique displays of imagination bursting off almost every page he encountered as serving to open up new possibilities in his own writing.

"Comics…taught me that writing is not just about making the words sound poetic and beautiful, but instead is mainly about the story," said Nelson. "I think that a good story is something that catches you off guard, keeps you engaged in the characters, their situations, their eventual fate. The plot/characters have to move forward in some way, and sometimes, as in comics, the best way to do that is through silent, description-less panels.

"I suppose I can say that in college I learned 'how' to write, but it wasn't until I moved out to LA and started meeting people who tell stories for a living - and a lot of them were comic book writers, like Mark Waid - that I learned how to actually 'tell' a story."

Nelson, who'd already managed to achieve a marginal level of success at this point as a writer by winning the 2004 New Times 55 Fiction contest for his short-short "The Conspirators," as well as penning a novel entitled "Dingo," which he chose to debut as a weekly serial on the Internet rather than wade through the maddening process of finding an agent and an eventual publisher for the book, was fortunate enough to have a pre-existing connection to the comic book industry already in place.

Michael's younger brother Matt worked as a colorist for Top Cow in the early to mid-nineties on such books as "Darkness" and "Rising Stars" and it was Matt who eventually wound up introducing him to Ross Richie, Boom! Studios President and Publisher.

"I can't remember where or when we first met exactly, probably when Ross was hanging around our apartment one day, and we hit it off pretty much right away," said Nelson. "We were both big into the same types of stories and both just really, really dug good comics. So, when Ross was starting up Boom!, one of the things that he was putting together was the first 'Zombie Tales' anthology, and he knew that I was a writer, and I remember that we were just hanging out one day and talking and goofing off, as usual, and the subject eventually turned to the book. Ross looked at me and said, 'Hey, Alan, you write, does this sound like something that maybe you might be interested in doing?' And all I said to him was, 'Yeah!!!'"

However, when it actually came time for Nelson to sit down and pen his first 8-page comic short, entitled "Severance," and illustrated by Joe Abraham ("Hero Squared"), he soon discovered that, like a zombie whose eyes were a little too big for its appetite for human brains that particular day, he might have bitten off a bit more than he could actually chew.

"I was really nervous at first, just in scripting the thing," Nelson admits. "Because I'd never written a comic book script before. I struggled for a real long time with the format and a lot of things that I wasn't too sure about, like was I putting too much information in my panel descriptions, not enough, would everything that I was hoping to convey in the script be clear to an artist? And then I still had to learn how to pace the thing, because I only had eight pages to tell my story. Not to mention trying to come up with a compelling eight-pager to begin with (not easy, trust me). It was almost like having to learn how to write from scratch all over again."

But, eventually, Nelson did manage to complete his first comic script, and Richie enjoyed it so much that he asked Nelson to return for future volumes of the anthology. "The tale that I wrote for 'Zombie Tales: Oblivion' was another standalone, illustrated by Andy Kuhn ('Firebreather,' '10'), called 'Riot Grrrl,'" said Nelson. "It takes place in the middle of a cornfield, mainly because I've always thought it would be sort of cool to set a zombie story out in the middle of nowhere, since most of them usually take place in big cities. And for 'Zombie Tales: The Dead' I'm writing a story called 'The Miracle of Bethany,' which takes place in the Vatican. Vatican Zombies, I can almost guarantee that you've never read another zombie story like it anywhere else ever before."

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It was Nelson's short work on the various "Zombie Tales" volumes that helped prove to Richie that the author was indeed capable of telling a gripping story in the still relatively unfamiliar (at least to him) format of comic books, and eventually led to him securing the ongoing "War of the Worlds: Second Wave" assignment - which Nelson once again chalks up to simply being in the right place at the right time.

"Ross and I were hanging out one night, again, when we started talking about the upcoming Tom Cruise/Steven Spielberg adaptation. We were just doing this 'What If?' sort of game that we play a lot, like what if the aliens found a way to overcome the virus, what if the red weed didn't all die out, what would happen to a society in the face of a catastrophic alien invasion, would people pull together to try and overcome, or would greed and the thirst for power takeover? And, I remember, all of a sudden Ross turns to me and says, 'Hey, Alan, you know you've got some pretty good ideas there. Why don't you write me up a proposal for a series.' And so I went home and did (although it wasn't quite as simple as I make it sound)."

Nelson says that, at least thus far, working on his first ongoing monthly has been both extremely demanding and enormously creatively fulfilling, largely due to the epic scope of the book and the vast array of characters and situations already in place from assorted "War of the Worlds" lore that he has to play with.

"The first issue of 'War of the World: Second Wave' was sort of the setup for everything else that's going to come further on down the line in the series," said Nelson. "The first wave of the Martian invasion hits, we're introduced to Miles Walker (get it?), who's going to be the series' lead protagonist - right away it's pretty clear that Miles' isn't your 'classic hero' type, I mean he can't even tell the difference between a flathead and Phillips screwdriver for god's sake - and through his own poor judgment, by telling her to hide down in the basement instead of the both of them fleeing to safety as soon as the invasion starts, Miles loses his wife when a Martian tripod more or less obliterates their house with her still inside.

"By the end of the first issue, Miles has lost everything that he ever cared about, so, when the second wave of the invasion hits, he actually welcomes it as his chance to take revenge on the Martians. Miles is a very damaged, angry character, and the first six or so issues of the series are going to deal largely with him trying to overcome that anger (if he even can)."

Nelson is joined on "Second Wave" by artist Chee and together the pair intend to chronicle the monthly adventures of Miles, his best friend, and the various human survivors that they come in contact with along the way as they try and navigate through a devastated, charred landscape and the shattered remains of society.

"X Isle" #1 "X Isle" #2
"The series is going to ask a lot of questions," Nelson said. "Like how are the aliens able to overcome the virus - which is something that's always bothered me about the ending of Wells' original tale, the fact that all the aliens just die off in the end because they catch a cold? I mean, I think if they can figure out interstellar travel, then they can probably come up with some kind of Theraflu or something - what do they actually want from us and our planet, what happens to the idea of Society when half the world is vaporized over night? And, of course, you can't forget about those darn red weeds! I've got a lot of really cool stuff planned for the red weeds in the future, believe me."

A big fan of Wells' original novel, as well as the 1938 Orson Welles radio play, Nelson says that one of the main things he is really looking forward to capturing in the series is the otherworldly aspect of the invaders from beyond.

"My favorite version of 'War of the Worlds' is the Orson Welles radio play. I can't even imagine how terrifying it must have been listening to that thing in 1938 and not realizing that it wasn't real. But the original 1950s black and white movie was pretty cool, too. There's a scene in it, when the alien meteor first lands, and three men approach it waving white flags in the air, only to get speedily vaporized by an alien arc welder, that I always try to keep in the back of my mind when I'm writing. Because I think that says an awful lot about what happens when you assume that an alien culture sees and experiences the world in exactly the same way as you do.

"Yes, we will get to know the Martians over the course of the series, but, at the same time, I still want them to remain largely 'other' in their motivations, deeds and actions. Plus, I should say that their technology is nothing like what you would expect. Keep reading the book, because we've got lots of cool surprises planned."

Also on tap for Nelson in the not too distant future are two more works from Boom!, "Fear The Dead: A Zombie Survival Journal" a 44-page pin-up book that Nelson has written the text for which features illustrations by Eric Powell, Norm Breyfogle, Guy Davis, and dozen of other top industry talents, and "X Isle" a five issue mini-series that he is co-writing with Andrew Cosby ("Damn Nation", the Sci-Fi Network's "Eureka") illustrated by Greg Scott ("Sword of Dracula," "Sam & Twitch") that Nelson describes as a "weird mix of 'Lost' meets 'Alien' meets 'The Ring.'"

"Working on 'X Isle' with Andrew has been a lot of fun - and also a great learning experience for me," said Nelson. "I think together we've managed to come up with a really unique take on the whole stranded on a desert island tale. And, trust me, if you think you know where the story's going after you get done with the first couple of issues - you definitely don't!"

"And getting the chance to work with Andrew himself has just been a fantastic, eye-opening experience. The guy's a friggin' Idea Machine! It's really amazing to sometimes just sit back and watch him do his thing. I mean, I'll throw an idea out there that is just complete and utter garbage, and, in ten seconds, Andrew's taken my crappy little notion and spun it into pure storytelling gold. You really need to bring you're A-Plus game into the room when you're collaborating with Andrew on a project - which can be at once inspiring and more than a little intimidating, let me tell you.

"While [series artist] Greg Scott is truly and simply and no other word for it an absolute Magician. Andrew and I will come up with these vague suggestions for creature designs and Greg'll just take our mumblings, go into a room for a bit, and BAM! he makes the thing look fantastic and frightening and exactly like everything we wanted once he comes out. The guy's amazing. And I think that 'X Isle' is going to be a book that a whole lot of comic fans are going to really, really, really dig…but I won't say anymore, otherwise I might spoil some things."

"X Isle" #3
Among a host of other projects lined up as potentially on tap in the coming months, Nelson says, he is engaged in the preliminary stages of discussions that would see his "Dingo" novel adapted into a comic book, from a publisher other than Boom! Studios.

"I can't really say too much about it at this point, but let's just say that somebody in a position to really do something about it has taken a real liking to the book, and very much wants to see it made into a comic. As of now, it would be a twelve issue maxi-series, so I'd have to move some things around, cut and compress some scenes and dialogue, but the overall story should remain relatively unchanged. With any luck (fingers crossed here), you'll get to see Dingo and Cerberus driving through the desert by the end of the year."

And for the future?

Nelson, who still works days in a Blood Bank (but in the Corporate Offices, so he doesn't actually come in contact with the blood - sorry Zombie fans), is keeping his options as open as possible, but says that he would very much like to expand upon both his comics and prose work.

"As of right now, the Brass Ring is being able to write fulltime for a living, whether that be comics, prose fiction, role playing games, movie scripts, TV, whatever," said Nelson. "When you write, there's a certain thrill you experience through telling the particular story you set out to tell, and, at the same time, you want others to experience that thrill in the same way as you did, which is what really great storytelling is capable of."

"All I want to do with my work in the future is be able to share that same feeling with others. Sure, I might never come up with anything as remotely close to the sheer genius and staggering brilliance of something like 'Watchmen,' but that doesn't mean that I can't still try. I also play guitar, and, although I'm certainly no Hendrix or Jimmy Paige on the thing, I still enjoy laying down the occasional lick. I sort of see all forms of creativity as like climbing a mountain, with the really greats being all those who've already made it all the way to the top. Sure, I might never get up that high myself someday, but I'm sure as hell gonna try anyway. I mean, hey, you always have to at least try, right."

 
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