Bigfoot, Elvis, alien invasions, cults. All are staples of tabloid newspaper, papers that you know can’t be real but can’t help but read. One of the first books to launch at Monkeybrain after the initial titles, “Strange Nation” takes all these tabloid staples and ties them together in a plot that threatens the very existence of Earth, a plot that journalist Norma Park is trying to expose no matter what.
“Strange Nation”, by writer Paul Allor and artist Juan Romera, wraps its first arc today, with the release of issue 8. Even as it wraps up the first arc, issue 8 hints at big things to come whenever Allor and Romera come back to the book.
Follow along as we chat with Paul Allor about “Strange Nation”, making sacrifices, Elvis, print sales for a digital book, The Wire, writing different sized issues, and much more. Be aware, there are mild spoilers for the whole series throughout and heavy spoiler for issue 8 towards the end, so get caught up before you read the interview.
“Strange Nation” #8 wraps up the first arc of the series, which has been published through Monkeybrain. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is really your first real creator-owned series other than “Clockwork”.
Paul Allor: And “Orc Girl”, which was a one-shot. It’s the first thing that’s serialized, not just one blast of storytelling.
Right. How does it feel to finally have this first arc out in the world and all wrapped up?
PA: Really great. I’m pretty excited to see what people think. Have you had a chance to read the issue yet?
I have, I read it last night.
PA: As you know then, we really take a right turn in the last issue, structurally. It’s very different than how things typically end. I’m excited to see what people think. We plan on coming back for future arcs, but print sales and a few other things will probably determine whether that happens soon or if that’s a plan for way down the road. So we tried to end it in a way that works for both scenarios. If it come back soon, then this ending sets up the rest of the series in a very cool way. But if this is the end, indefinitely, then I hope this provides a cool twist ending to the series. An ending that lets the readers know that this story will go on, even if we aren’t there to see it.
You mention that print sales will probably determine a lot of things. Do you have any concrete plans for the print edition yet?
PA: We do, but they haven’t been announced yet. [laughs]
[laughs] Fair enough, fair enough.
Let me know if I’m overstepping, but from what I understand Monkeybrain books don’t make a terribly large amount of money, but I know for a lot of the creators it’s also the first time they’re in print with a major publisher. Was that your goal in any way going into it? That you’d be able to have a creator-owned project in print by a major publisher by the end of it?
PA: No, honestly, my goal was to tell a really awesome story, that people might enjoy.
Your main character, Norma Park, she’s a journalist who loses her job and then becomes embroiled in this larger involving sasquatches, aliens, and all kinds of things. What made her the right character to tell this story with? I think I remember you talking on Twitter about how you maybe personally made her a minority and a women and how it may have changed how you wrote the story.
PA: Well, with every character you create, you make decisions in terms of their demographics, but no, I wasn’t trying to make a point about it. But given how poor female representation and minority representation is in comic books, if I have a choice between writing another white dude as the main character or someone who’s less well-represented in comics, I’m going to tend to go towards that second option. I do have some while male leads in upcoming projects, but I try to only do that if there’s a reason for it. Maybe the best way to put it is, I try not to let white and male be the default.Continued below
I didn’t really plan this out, but Norma did end up being the most like me of any protagonist that I’ve ever written, despite the obvious demographic differences. I used to be a journalist, so I think that was a big part of the reason why. I don’t think Norma is much like me now, but I think Norma shares a lot of traits with me in my early 20s when I was a lot more reckless than I am now, I was a lot more angry and self-destructive. I realized early on that I was sort of writing a younger version of myself as I was writing her.
There’s a scene in issue 3 or 4 where she goes back to her childhood home and there are book on the walls and a Clash record on the dresser. At that point, I said, “Screw it.” and went all in. I basically described to Juan in the script shit that was in my room when I was in high school. All the books, records, cross country trophies, that was all stuff you would’ve found in my high school bedroom.
I know you didn’t read comics until you were in your late 20s, 28 I think you’ve said. I’m sure you’ve caught up plenty, but how does not necessarily having that lifelong grounding in it work for you? Do you tell stories in a different way you feel?
PA: I do think that I tend to approach stories a little bit differently than some comics writers, because a lot of the tropes and cliches aren’t as ingrained in me as they are for people who have been reading comics since they were a kid. I do think that a problem a lot of modern comics have is that they really tend to be so heavily influenced by other comics. You have so many comics that are basically just people doing their take on comics they read as a kid. It starts to feel like copies of copies of copies. But I do think I tend to fall in that trap a little less readily than a lot of comic writers do, because comics are something that I came to love as an adult, not something that really shaped a lot of my childhood the way it did for other people. I feel like a bit of an asshole saying that, because I fear that it comes off like, “Hey, I’ve been reading less than ten years, so let me show you how it’s done!” And that’s not what I mean, at all.
One thing I’ll add is that I don’t think I’m very unusual in that regard anymore. I think that’s just changed over the last several years. Even when I first started doing this, I would tell people when I started reading comics, and I’d get a lot of surprised looks. These days, much more often, I’ll say that and the response I’ll get is, “Me, too!” That’s especially true when it comes to female readers, I’ve noticed.
“Strange Nation”, like a lot of other Monkeybrain titles, releases in installments of about 12-14 pages. With your “Clockwork” shorts you did 5 pages. You’ve obviously done your work for hire stuff at full length, 20-22 pages. Was it a challenge to hit that middle ground? Is that why the 8 issues came about instead of maybe 5 or 6?
PA: It was originally planned as a four-issue print miniseries. Once it was picked up by Monkeybrain, we decided to make it an eight-issue series. So that was planned pretty much from the start.
Like you said, I started my career with “Clockwork”, which is a collection of five-page comics. And five page stories are such a structural challenge, to tell a complete story in that amount of space. Because I spent so much time on that, everything else is a cakewalk. 8 pages, 12 pages, 20-22 pages, it’s all good. Throw it at me and I will do my best to knock it out of the park. I had a couple small gigs early on, right after “Clockwork” came out, that were 8 pages, and it was crazy how much space it felt like. It’s only 8 pages, but it’s 60 percent more space than what I’d been writing!Continued below
One thing that I’ve noticed throughout “Strange Nation” is a sense of family. There’s Norma and her family, and also Merc, Monkey-headed Joe, and the scientists. What made that something worth exploring amidst this planetary invasion, sasquatch armies, and the other crazy, more outlandish events?
PA: I guess in a way it’s just the old cliche of making things personal, but a lot of these type of genre-heavy stories grind to a halt when you turn to the family stuff. It’s often done in such a way that it feels really boring, because it’s not what the creators care about, and it’s not organic to the rest of the story. I knew that I wanted to explore Norma’s family dynamics, but in a way that was integral to the story. The whole arc of Norma’s story is that she is desperate to get the truth out, no matter what and will make sacrifices. If you want to do that, then you actually have to have a sacrifice. If you have a character who is a grizzled, lone-wolf, then they’re basically just putting themselves at risk and who cares? That’s just a choice they’re making. Norma is putting her family at risk, her friends at risk.
When Monkey-Headed Joe was killed at the end of the first issue, that was so heartbreaking to me. I resisted it and kept thinking of reasons to bring him back because I loved that character so much. But he had to die. The whole book is about what you’re willing to sacrifice for what you believe in. There had to be a sacrifice early on.
You talked about Merc as well. One of the bad guys in the book is essentially a surrogate brother to this character who dies early on. I thought it was interesting that not only does Norma’s choice in issue 1 end up killing someone she’s come to care about, but also is someone that the bad guys care about a lot. Even Harris, the scientist that kills Joe, really cares about him. That was not something that he wanted to do. He’s not the moustache-twirling villain, he’s a guy who’s incredibly mournful to do this hideous thing for what he sees as the greater good. So I think the family dynamics are there as a way to explore the theme of what you’re willing to give up for what you believe in.
And on a much more basic level: people have families. People have complex relationships. And in a lot of sci-fi and genre work, generally, we tend to treat people as very one-dimensional and not having those interior lives that the rest of us have when we’re away from work. I wanted to show that even if Norma had never stumbled upon all this, she would still have this relationship with her parents, the villains would still have this weird family dynamic that they have with Joe and Merc.
So, yeah, a lot of sci-fi and genre fiction tends to either ignore family altogether, or insert it in a really clunky way. I wanted to sidestep both those pitfalls and just make a good, well-rounded portrait of Norma’s family.
I think you did it well because some of the better moments even amid issues where there were sasquatch riot cops, a sasquatch punching a cultist, and a whole lot more, and still some of the most memorable moments are the very human moments amid the aliens and urban legends.
PA: It was really cool setting up Norma’s family. Like I said, Norma’s a lot like me, personality wise, but she’s the exact opposite of me in demographics. I’m not a woman, obviously. I’m not Korean-American, obviously, and I come from a relatively modest family, financially, and a family where my parents were not together very long into my life. It was very cool exploring a character that has a lot of those same personality traits as me, but comes from a much more stable and different background than I did. I had a lot of fun writing the scenes with Norma’s parents, both her talking to them and her parents talking to each other.
Even outside Norma’s family, one of her main companions who’s introduced early on is Jesse, who’s all but explicitly stated to be Elvis.Continued below
PA: I certainly can’t agree with that!
There are definitely hints as to Jesse Vernon’s true identity, and even the name Jesse Vernon has significant connection to the person many people believe him to. I felt like if we’re dealing with tabloid staples, I thought it was cool to do the obviously phony stuff, like Bigfoot, aliens, the Jersey Devil, and mermaids. If you’re going to have all that, you’re going to have to include that guy as well, as he’s one of the first things you think of when you think of tabloids.
I wanted to have him there in an interesting way, which is why he’s there as the sidekick. The dynamic you usually see is an older white male hero and their younger minority sidekick, and I wanted to flip that around. I also wanted to tell a story where the male lead and female lead fought side-by-side, but had absolutely zero romantic tension whatsoever. Very rarely in these types of stories do you see just friendship between the leads in that way. Just flat out friendship with no romantic undertones whatsoever.
He is definitely a tabloid staple, but I thought it was interesting to see how he’s changed over time. He’s sort of mellowed and he apparently knows karate now.
PA: I have had a couple of people criticize the fighting style that he uses. That person was into a certain kind of martial arts that are different than what Jesse uses. My response to that would be: even if you’re correct about his identity, it has been 37 years since he’s faked his death. Perhaps he’s picked up a few tricks along the way.
From here on out there’s going to be some spoilers, so if you haven’t read issue 8, head on over to Comixology and get a copy.
In the ending of issue 8, like you said, you wrap it up, but you also set up a big future arc. You set up a potential big problem between the aliens and Atlantis, the merpeople.
PA: I’ve had this ending in my brain for a couple years now. Issue 8, as you know, has 3 pages with our leads and then 9 pages with completely new people that we’ve never seen before. Though, that store cashier that turns out to be an alien did have a very brief cameo in an earlier issue (issue 6) that I seeded in there. These two surfer dudes are making a joke about being probed by aliens, and the cashier in the store is giving them the side eye like, “Everyone talks about the fucking anal probes.” Out of context, it looks likes nothing, but I’m hoping some people get a kick out of it if they reread it.
The last 9 pages of the issue are dedicated to entirely new characters, which I was worried about and I don’t know what the reaction to it will be like. I thought it would be cool, and think it works really well as a coda on the story and, as you said, to set up for future arcs.
This is going to sound so terrible because I’m about to invoke the name of one of the greatest longform stories in the history of America, but – and I’m not saying “Strange Nation” is near this level of storytelling or craft – structurally “Strange Nation” is actually inspired in large part by The Wire. Every season of The Wire brought in some new element, from the docks to City Hall to the schools. We plan on doing that. The mermaid army is the first new element that we’re bringing in. And on The Wire, the penultimate episode of each season was where shit always went down and the last episode of every season tended to just be resolution and setup for the future. That was what I had in mind as I was writing this.
Can I ask you what your reading experience was like on the last issue, when it switched over to the mermaid story? You’re the first person I’ve talked to that didn’t know it was coming. Everyone else who’s read it were people I’d talked to about it beforehand.Continued below
Well, it was – I don’t want to say sudden – but it was an interesting switch. Then to have the cashier immediately try to choke out the surfer, and he turns into an alien, and then the surfer jumps into the water and heads to Atlantis basically made me go, “Oh shit!”
PA: Excellent! That’s pretty much what I was going for.
I do wish I’d done a better job of setting up those aliens and those mermaids as characters, as I feel like they’re really thin. But, you know, you’ve got nine pages and it’s the end of the series. People probably didn’t want to learn a whole lot about characters that they’re only going to see for nine pages. So much of writing is about balancing priorities and making choices, so I had to intentionally make the choice that these guys would become more fleshed out in a future arc. It’s okay for right now to just make them constructs to move the action forward.
I do love, though, that the merman’s name is Brodie and he’s addressed as that by other merpeople. I do love that.
PA: Good old Brodie. I’m looking forward to writing more for him and having the readers learn more about him.
And he was another element that was set up early on. You actually see mermaids in the first issue in the containment tanks and I think it’s in the second issue where we’re in the newspaper office and the editor is looking at someone’s copy. She’s criticizing the story’s headline: “Shapeshifting Mermen Surf Our Shores.” “That’s terrible alliteration and everyone knows mermen don’t exist. Cut that story!”
Maybe just for me more than anything, why are the some of the merpeople fish-people and some the traditional merpeople? I have to know.
PA: Oh! I’m glad you picked up on that. It’s just because I thought it would be interesting if there was more than one race. We’re going to explore some of those dynamics of the relationships between the different races of merpeople and how that plays into their politics. That’s the story reason. The practical reason is that I hadn’t really given much thought to how they would look early on. I later decided that I did want them to be mermen, but Juan drew the ones in issue 1 as traditional mermaids, so I decided to just have both and play with that.
On the last couple pages, we see that obviously the merpeople have a history with the aliens who are currently working in the shadows to destroy Earth. I’m sure we’ll find out more in the future arcs, but can you elaborate more on that relationship?
It’s basically just this idea that these aliens have been doing this for a long time. On the one hand, they’re obviously evil, because they’re committing genocide on planet after planet. But it’s not because they’re mustache-twirling villains. They’re using these planets as an energy source, to keep their race alive. This is, perhaps, a choice that some of our own governments would make under the same conditions. I like the idea that this isn’t their first attempt at Earth, that they did try to take over our planet and use up our resources a long time ago, and the mermaids were there to stop them.
I also like the idea that from the aliens’ perspective, this is just one of dozens of worlds they’re currently invading, and one of hundreds they’ve invaded in the past. It’s insignificant. But from the mermaids’ perspective, it’s huge. It’s shaped their entire civilization, because they’ve known that they had to be ready if these guys come back.
I think it’s the beginning of issue 6, there’s a scene where we cut away to a planet where the aliens are attacking and it’s much further along to where they are at war and mining their resources. I did that scene to establish that we’re not the center of the aliens’ world. We’re just one small piece of what they’re doing.
At the very end of the issue, after the stellar Ryan K. Lindsay backmatter that’s ran throughout and the handful of fantastic pinups, you tease the next arc, The Beast of Brixton. What can you reveal about that?Continued below
PA: The Beast of Brixton is going to find Norma in hiding under an assumed identity. It’s going to be a bit later, so she’ll be established in her new location. She’s in a small town somewhere in America, and is trying to keep her head low. But she’s still Norma Park! This town has this mysterious beast that most peopel assume is just an urban legend. And it’s been acting up lately, terrorizing the citizenry. Norma know she’s supposed to keep her head low, but she just can’t quite do it. The second arc is going to be a little unusual in that, at least in the early issues, it’s going to split away from the invasion plotline for a while. Given how the first arc ended, I don’t think it’s a huge secret to say that the invasion is going to continue to be the main thread of the book. But, this is the first time we take a moment to see what Norma’s life would be like if she tried to put it all behind her, if that’s even possible for her to do. It’s a sort of unofficial “what-if” of what Norma’s life would be like and if she could be happy if she wasn’t crusading to expose the truth and bring justice to people deserve it.
You’re already said a couple times that you’ll be on hiatus for a while as you figure out how to proceed with the book. What are you and Juan up to in the mean time?
PA: I’m not sure what Juan is up to, but he seems to work pretty darn steadily, so I’m sure he has some awesome stuff coming out. I know he’s the colorist on “Creature Cops”, an awesome new mini-series that’s coming out from IDW and Comics Experience in January.
For me, I have more Turtles stuff coming out early next year that I’m very excited about. I have a new book called “Past The Last Mountain” from Third World Studios, which is a geo-political fantasy that I’m doing with artist Louie Joyce, with layouts by Gannon Beck. “Tet” is my romance/crime/war story set in Vietnam. It’s a four-issue mini that I’m doing with Paul Tucker. I’m really excited about that book because it’s the kind of story that, frankly, most publishers shy away from because they feel like there might not be a market for it. This Comics Experience/IDW alliance lets editor Andy Schmidt put out good books, which is what exactly what he wants to do. He doesn’t want to put out books in certain genres or books that can be turned into movies, he just wants to put out good books. He was an almost immediate yes when I showed him Paul Tucker’s art and talked to him about the story, when I think it would’ve been a hard sell to anyone else. I’m incredibly excited for that book.
“Past The Last Mountain” is also one of the best things I’ve ever done. I have some other unannounced things that I’m really excited about too. I’m really excited for 2015 and I think it’s going to be a really great year for me. I think I have some pretty damn awesome stuff in the works.