Around these parts, we are huge Jonathan Case fans. From “Dear Creature” to “The Creep” to “Green River Killer” to “Batman ’66,” we absolutely love what he brings to the comics he works on. And so, when a prose book (featuring some illustrations and a comic in the back) showed up in my mailbox with Case’s name as a co-writer, my interest was piqued. Seeing his name next to the names of Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird and Jeff Jensen? Well, now I’m on the edge of my seat. Reading the title, and seeing that it was a prequel to the until recently shrouded in secrecy Tomorrowland film? Well, now I have to read it.
The book lays out incredible detail of the history of Plus Ultra, the organization at the heart of both the book and the film. Due to some absolutely tragic circumstances, Case went from just an illustrator to a co-writer on the book, and pushed his creativity in new ways. We got to speak to Jeff Jensen (also the film’s co-writer) and Jonathan Case about “Before Tomorrowland,” their past collaborations, and what the future has in store for both creators.
You two first collaborated on “Green River Killer,” a truly incredible piece of comics non-fiction. How did you guys first wind up working together?
Jeff Jensen: I didn’t know Jonathan before “Green River Killer.” We were introduced via our editor on the project, Sierra Hahn. She had been aware of Jonathan’s work and showed me pages from his graphic novel “Dear Creature.” I was blown away by his style, his storytelling, and his ability to capture and express emotion. Talking with him, I was struck by his conscience, his great taste and artistry, and his professionalism. He was the perfect collaborator for “Green River Killer” and I couldn’t be more thrilled with the result. As a writer, when you have an experience with an artist like that, you think: “Man, I want him to draw EVERYTHING that I ever do!” Fortunately, I got that opportunity again with this book.
Jonathan Case: Dark Horse and Jeff had already begun developing Green River Killer, and they reached out to me. I was looking for an opportunity to work with Dark Horse, and Jeff’s book ended up being a very good fit.
Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof get story credit here, but how much of the story and structure comes from them? Is it more that they laid the initial story groundwork for the film, and you two let loose, or were they involved in more than just the broad strokes?
JJ: As I worked with Damon and Brad on the story for “Tomorrowland” we were also brainstorming the world of Tomorrowland and the history of the secret organization that built the city of the future you’ll visit in the film. In the process of this work, we came up with of backstory for the film, or rather, a series of stories that taken together produced what you might call a mythology for this world. The story we tell in “Before Tomorrowland” is one of those stories.
In our research into 20th century futurism, we noticed a relationship between different strains of futurism, be they large movements or small movements, and periods of major social and global unrest. Sometimes, those conflicts inspired futuristic movements; sometimes, those conflicts became expressions of those futuristic movements; sometimes, those conflicts stymied or ended those futuristic movements. We decided that the history of Plus Ultra would reflect this ebb, flow and stagnation.
“Before Tomorrowland,” then, was the result of us wondering what Plus Ultra was doing during the 1930s, leading up to World War II. We decided that the 1939 World’s Fair in New York and the First Worlds Science Fiction Convention in the summer of 1939 would have been very important events for them, and that they would have used those events to share one of their biggest secrets with the world, in hopes of pulling the world out of The Great Depression and stopping the slide toward global conflict. So we came up with this premise. It was left to me to flesh it out into a story – plot, structure, main characters, etc. — which I did for the book. This story also conveys a great deal of the history of Plus Ultra prior to 1939, and all that history was brainstormed by me, Damon and Brad. The book also makes use of settings and technology that we created for the story of the film.Continued below
By the way? You can get more intel about the film’s mythology at the website, takemetotomorrowland.com, which includes this amazing piece of animation we created that tells the origins of Plus Ultra.
What led to Jonathan become more than just a visual contributor to the story? Given your past working relationship, was there a certain ease in breaking a story together?
JJ: In the spring of 2014, I told Jonathan I would no longer be able to write the book due to the declining health of my wife, who had brain cancer. Jonathan was steeped in the story and asked if he could take a crack at writing it. I immediately said yes. I loved this idea. He had written his own material, I knew he could tell a story. I had great faith it would turn out well, and it did. Jonathan finished the first draft in August, 2014. By that time, I was able to re-engage with the book, and I worked with him on the next couple drafts. This was all easier said than done. We were under tight deadline pressure, and I probably wasn’t easy to work with: I wouldn’t recommend co-writing a book with someone who is simultaneously processing a ton of grief. It doesn’t always lead to the best decisions. But among Jonathan’s many virtues is an abundance of grace and patience. Those qualities came in handy in getting us to the finish line.
JC: The only ease (if there was ease!) came from our shared belief in the story and our conviction to do it as well as we could. The rest was the usual hard work.
Jonathan, you’ve written comics in the past but, if I’m not mistaken, this is your first writing credit on a prose book. How different was it, for you, to work on a manuscript that didn’t afford you the luxury of showing but, rather, required telling?
JC: Initially terrifying, and then really, really enjoyable. I usually have to tell and refine a story three or four times before it’s done as a comic (script, layouts, lettering, drawing, etc.), so the freedom to just run wild and write/rewrite so quickly was a joy. Enough that I want to do more prose in the future.
What will you take from this experience over to your comic work?
JC: That’s tough… maybe to do less comics work! No, I love it, but I also love the idea of doing more hybrid books like this, where if I want to dig into the details that prose allows, I can, or if I want the visuals, I can have those too. I have plenty of stories I’d like to tell, but if I draw them all as pure graphic novels, I might produce 5-10 in my career. I have more in me than 5-10, so prose could be a means to get those out.
Jeff, what about this story led you to the conclusion that there needed to be a strong visual element to it? Was the comic always in place as an element of the story?
JJ: Like I said earlier, I initially wanted to tell this story as a graphic novel. We just didn’t have enough time to do that right. However, we always knew a comic book would factor into the plot of the novel, and we always thought it would be cool if the reader could actually see and read that comic. This led to the idea of producing the comic and binding it into the book. Once we got that idea, more ideas followed. Let’s do spot illustrations, too! Let’s design the book as an homage to those mid-century small-sized “Tom Swift”/”Hardy Boys” adventure books!
Was there a particular sequence in the book that you wish could have been illustrated? For me, the prologue, especially the simulator, was rife for a comics layout.
JJ: I initially pitched this story to Disney Publishing as a graphic novel. So in my opinion, I wish EVERY sequence could have been illustrated! My favorite chapters in the book are the ones that deal with Clara and Lee at the First World Science Fiction Convention. I’d love to have seen those illustrated. But I agree with you, the prologue cries out for visual storytelling. The climax and the epilogue, too. There’s one part, though, that I just love in its prose form: The lengthy description of the day of Henry’s accident at Hughes Aircraft. Jonathan wrote the hell out of that chapter.
JC: Probably the scene where Doctor Rowang takes Henry off to the island. That was one of the last bits I wrote, and it ended up being a favorite of mine. I like the contrast of that sunny setting with the revelation of Rotwang’s evil plans.
Jeff, as both one of the screenwriters of the film and authors of the book, you are uniquely qualified to answer this question: what is the one part of the book that will most resonate with readers as they sit in the theater in late May?
JJ: The tone, the themes, and a little thing we like to call “wire transfer.”
This is a project that has been shrouded in secrecy for some time now – how hard is it to work on a project like this, that lets people project their hopes and wishes onto it, before knowing the first thing about it?
JJ: I trust the audience and critics to give the movie a fair shake, no matter what expectations or projections they possess entering the film.
Jeff, I read your work religiously during LOST, and now you are collaborating with LOST co-creator Damon Lindelof. I can only imagine how surreal that must have felt – share a little about what it’s like to be working alongside someone whose brain you were trying to get inside for 5 years?
JJ: It was a great experience. To be clear, my LOST theorizing was equal parts trying to crack the riddle of that story and playing with the story. By the end, though, I feel I was mostly writing out of my personal connection to the story, which is to say, responding to the themes that most interested me. Which might not have been the themes that most interested other people, or even Damon and Carlton [Cuse, LOST executive producer] and the other writers of the show! I have a ton of admiration for Damon, as an artist and as a person, and it was thrilling – and humbling – to get the chance to work with him. Damon is a natural born storyteller with a huge imagination and huge heart for the world and huge curiosity about all aspects of human experience, from the scientific to the spiritual.
Jonathan, So much of your work has been set at various points in the past: is there something about working outside of the present time that appeals to you, or is this just happenstance?
JC: It definitely comes out of me for some reason. I’m not sure why. I love technology and progress, but it’s more enjoyable as a visual storyteller to make use of the pre-digital world. Telling a story about a guy who crosses the earth physically for the girl he loves is more visually engaging than that guy calling her on Skype.
The last time we spoke, you were just wrapping up your initial work on “Batman ’66,” a beloved property that people responded quite well to when it was brought back. Is there a different type of pressure working on a prequel/supporting story for an unreleased piece of work, rather than an existing property?
JC: When Jeff said, “Brad Bird, Disney, movie tie-in”, I expected a barrage of notes and management, but that really wasn’t the case. Any pressure came from our tight timeline and life circumstances.
Even though we were working within the Tomorrowland world, I never felt creatively constrained, and that’s the most you can hope for. Established properties can be fun, but it really comes down to being free in whatever you’re doing, for me, anyway.
You guys have made both a non-fiction graphic novel and a fictional novel – what’s next in your collaboration? Anything in the pipeline?
JJ: The soft cover edition of “Green River Killer” arrives this fall, with a new cover by Jonathan. This is a big year for Jonathan: He’s got an amazing graphic novel coming out called “The New Deal.” As for me, I’m tinkering with a few things, but nothing to talk about right now.
JC: Not as yet! I think we should collaborate on a vacation somewhere relaxing, with music we both like.
“Before Tomorrowland” is available now from Disney Press.