While a decade as tumultuous and inventive as the 80’s is remembered differently by many people that survived it, the long-lasting effects that it has had on pop culture is undeniable. Chief amongst those contributions, though, is an advent in a certain type of cinematic adventure; most of our favorite cultural icons, heroes and heroines all find their roots in the figures that dominated the larger than life screens of the time, and standing triumphantly amongst that crowd is the one, the only, Snake Plissken.
John Carpenter’s Escape from New York is not the type of film that many would probably talk about as a classic in the same way that you’d discuss Citizen Kane (or other films that stereotypically get brought up in those kinds of discussions), but Escape is never the less an important film. Displaying a pessimistic view of the future in a post-Vietnam America, Escape is very much what people were afraid of at the time. and since its release we’ve seen many films, books, shows and comics all imitate its style, its stoic lead and more.
And now? Now Escape is coming back to comics care of BOOM! Studios in a new series written by Christopher Sebela and illustrated by Diego Barreto. While the book itself was announced in July at Comic-Con, the release of it is still a bit away off in December. But now that the book has officially been solicited, it’s time to sit down and talk about it — which is exactly what we’re here to do today.
Read on as we chat with Sebela about the series, growing up in the 80s and being aware of the bomb, Snake’s macho-ness and more, and be sure to throw “Escape from New York” on your pull list for December. It sounds like it’s going to be quite the wild ride.
The easiest to place with a conversation about “Escape from New York” is, where did you first come to this film?
Christopher Sebela: I don’t precisely remember when I first saw it. John Carpenter was like, I don’t know, the first horror director where I knew his name and I knew this name meant something. I remember seeing The Fog on TV as a kid and it freaked me out. Even younger than that, I remember my mom watching Halloween in the house, and I didn’t even look at it but the theme music was scary enough that I had to run and hide from the sound of it. Once I was allowed to rent whatever I wanted from video stores, I went through his films pretty quickly. It was a pretty young age, I probably didn’t “get” a lot of it, but I appreciated a dude running around shooting other people and throwing knives, stuff like that. It’s something I’ve gone back to repeatedly over the years.
Are we allowed to call you a child of the 80’s? Is that an accurate description?
CS: Yeah, of course.
So we’re talking the full-on experience of renting these movies on VHS tapes, which I think enhances the experience.
CS: Oh yeah. It’s all part of the — One of the things I made sure to clear up with my editor after I got the gig, I was like, “I want all the technology to be the same technology that’s in the movie.” So, cutting-edge stuff in the future of 1997. It’s still cassette tapes and crappy, wireframe computer graphics. I’m sure they’d all be watching something like a VHS tape but probably bigger in that time period, so yeah, I feel very connected to it from that. I was there when everything was crappy.
See, I was born at the tail end of the 80’s, so I am more accurately described as a 90’s kid. But one of the things that you hear from people who grew up in certain generations is how important that was to their growing experience, you know? And I feel like the 80’s in particular was very important to a lot of people that grew up during that time. Do you find that that aspect reflects on you while working on this book at all?
CS: Yeah, but only in retrospect. Growing up, I didn’t know anything about anything; I remember, actually, as a kid saying something mean about Ronald Reagan, but I had no idea why. Someone had told me that this guy was an asshole and he kind of looked like an asshole, so that was really all I needed. But it’s all retrospect — I didn’t realize how much the country was on the verge of collapse in the late 70’s, early 80’s. I remember living through it, I remember as a kid certain friends of mine being terrified of the prospect of nuclear war, which I guess is still a looming spectre but we don’t talk about it all the time these days. We have much, much worse concerns now. Back then, though… Everybody thought we were all going to die in a nuclear holocaust very soon.Continued below
So, yeah, I feel like remembering what being under that influence was like, and that film feels very much like a reaction to that time. There’s no special insight or anything, but I definitely feel like I don’t have to struggle with any of it.
That’s great, because that actually sort of leads into my next question which is: the movie takes place in the future of 1997, but it’s done through that prism of 1980. When you’re planning your work on the book, is it a challenge to try and look to the future through that very specific prism from the past?
CS: No, not really. I don’t know; I feel like there was a lot that was set-up in that movie as far as what that future is like. Not into heavy detail, but the fact that New York walled off Manhattan and turned it into a prison, that tells you a lot about the state of the world and America especially. It just feels like everything is set-up for me. I’ve been taking a lot of liberties and a lot of suppositions, but I feel like it’s all on track. It’s a weird process, because I’m speculating on a future that took place over a decade ago as viewed from… Once you start doing the time math, it really starts to hurt your head.
It would probably be prudent to actually talk about what is happening in the new series itself.
CS: The book starts right at the end of the film. So, it’s not the continuing adventures of Snake Plissken randomly showing up somewhere; we open with Snake tearing the President’s cassette tape apart and walking off into the dark. My diving board for this was that, if Snake had just embarrassed the President in front of the entire world and destroyed the tape that the president said was going to create peace while they’re in the middle of World War III, basically Snake has kickstarted the war back up again and made the President look like a jackass. That happy ending for him of complete amnesty for his crimes and walking off? That’s not gonna stick.
Basically, the President wants Snake brought back in front of him to pay for what he’s done to him. Now Snake is on the run from the entirety of the United States Police Force. He’s moving across the country, trying to put distance between him and them. In my head, the elevator pitch is: if New York is this screwed up, what must the other 49 states be like? If New York is the greatest city in the world and the financial capital of America, if that went down and there are weird, subterranean mutants running around in there, the rest of America must be even more screwed up in a variety of fun ways. That’s our opening premise for the book, and it’s all one continuing story; it’s what happens as a result of what Snake did in Escape.
I know that Escape from LA takes place over a decade after the film, so I’m going to guess you don’t really touch that territory at all.
CS: No, no. If by some miracle we get sixteen years of comics out of this then we can talk, but we have so much ground to cover that we’re not even thinking about Escape from LA.
I know that John Carpenter is somewhat involved in the process of the comicization of his movies, with “Big Trouble” and now “Escape from New York,” but what is that working relationship like from you to Carpenter?
CS: He basically looks at everything and gives it his yay or nay. It’s not the same level of involvement that he had with “Big Trouble,” I don’t think; we’ve not had a phone call where we plotted out what was going to happen or talked about this stuff. I basically came up with an idea and sent it to my editors, and they sent it to him and he sent back his notes and whether he likes it or not. I’d do a lot of illegal things if I could just hop on the phone with John Carpenter for ten minutes and I’d love for it to happen, it’s more of just a matter of time. He’s read the first script and he liked it, so I think he’s confident that since “Big Trouble” went off without a hitch that he doesn’t have to be as involved in the day-to-day details of it. But that’s supposition on my part.Continued below
But, yeah, the studio, Carpenter, they’ve been really on board with what we’re doing. I’m only guessing, but it feels like there’s a certain level of trust that we won’t screw it up.
Now, this isn’t your first rodeo with licensed property work or work-for-hire situations, like “Ghost,” “Captain Marvel,” the “Alien vs. Predator” book. What is the experience like for you on “Escape” as opposed to books like that? Is it inherently different at all?
CS: Yeah, there’s at least one huge difference between this and “Alien vs. Predator” which is that nobody is actively trying to make a new film. I know there has been talk about remaking Escape for years now, but no one is actively trying to make a sequel. That takes a ton of pressure off; with “AvP,” they’re currently working on the sequel to Prometheus, so while we’re working on our story they’re working on theirs, and parts of our story work against what they’re doing. We’re not in constant contact, though; we go, write our stuff, send it to them, they’ll look it over and say, “Oh, well this isn’t going to work because it’s too close to what we’re doing.” But with “Escape from New York,” they’ve had the one sequel, and there is sixteen years between them — nobody is trying to make “Escape from New Jersey.”
So, yeah, it’s a kind of awesome experience. I’m just told if they like it or not; there is no continuity that I have to be beholden to other than what is established in the first movie. It’s kind of an ideal scenario. When I found out about “Big Trouble” I was super jealous because I thought that was great; nobody is looking to make the sequel to Big Trouble so you could go crazy with what comes next and no one will tell you if it won’t work with some other property in the works. It really opens the doors, and you can just go hog wild and throw anything out there and it’s all game.
Lets talk about Snake. Snake is one of the most iconic characters of all time, and yet I’ve never felt that Snake is treated on the same level as other action stars of his era. To keep the comparisons going, you don’t hear people talking about Snake the same way they talk about someone like Ripley. But what do you think it is about Snake that makes him one of those all time great lead action hero archetype characters?
CS: Well, they even say on the commentary on the DVD that Kurt Russell based a lot of it on old Westerns. It’s just a completely amoral take on it. I think the 80’s were very much about “What can I get? What’s out there for me?” And Snake, well, that’s basically who he is. He’s interested in saving his neck, but he keeps getting drawn into these situations where he has to be a human being again, and you can clearly tell he’s not a fan of it. There’s just something really iconic about his look as well. Its been cannibalized by Metal Gear and other stuff, sure, and — Well, I don’t know if that was sort of the start of that big run of dystopian/post-apocalyptic movies, Mad Max came out not too long before Escape. But for America, Snake is kind of the first big, iconic lone man wandering through the apocalypse.
He’s also a King of the Hill type. Snake can do anything he wants, but he’s not an asshole about it. He’s not a dude who will turn into the Duke of New York; he’s not interested in pushing other people around. He just wants to live his life and people keep getting in the way of that. Even movies like Rambo almost feel like a “realistic” take on Snake Plissken; a guy who just wants to be left alone, who has been through the war and all this shit and who realizes that everything he fought for was total garbage. He just wants to be left alone and life his life. I don’t know if that speaks a lot to post-Vietnam — I’m getting way too deep into all this — I don’t know if that just spoke to that era of America, but in the end he’s an asshole that’s still lovable.Continued below
He’s also unintentionally funny, but he’s not that sort of John McClane, wise crackin’ action hero we got after that. And he has a cool mullet, which is really hard to pull off. Even today, if you saw somebody walking down the street with Kurt Russell’s hair in Escape from New York, you would not make fun of that dude. It looks good! And he has this weird gun fetish with this huge scope and silencer… I don’t know. It just feels like the perfect storm of everybody who came up with this idea of the ultra-cool dude.
I imagine you don’t really find it that difficult to get into Snake Plissken’s head or to find his voice when writing the character?
CS: No. He’s not super complex to me. The most fascinating thing about Snake to me is, there’s a whole deleted scene in Escape from New York that was supposed to be the first reel of the film, and it opens on him and a partner robbing the Federal Depository. The whole reason he gets thrown into the prison. It’s this whole heist sequence, and his friend gets caught and killed and Snake is torn between running and trying to save his friend. And you get this impression that for his whole life, every time he gets close to anybody — and this is true for the movie — every time he gets close to someone, they are dead before the story is over.
It feels like that makes it all pretty clear: Snake would like to be a regular person, but that’s just not possible because wherever he goes, chaos and death follow him. He has depth to the character, but he’s not showing anybody — not even John Carpenter or Kurt Russell. There are layers beneath him that nobody’s ever going to touch. It doesn’t feel hard to me getting his voice down and his attitude. It all came pretty easy once I started scripting. It is hard, though, because with the superhero stuff that I’ve done… I like when people say snappy dialogue after kicking the crap out of somebody, so it’s hard to pull back from that because that’s totally not who Snake is.
So, yeah, if you pay attention, it’s all there on the surface. He doesn’t hide anything. If he hates you he will make it known. He’s a very open person, so writing for him is easy enough — a dude with no social graces and not because he lacks them but rather because he doesn’t need them.
I’m going to ask you the matroshka question, which is not an intimidating set-up at all, but looking at Snake, icon of the 80’s — his mindset kind of represents a more antiquated or archaic male character. Whereas, from everything I’ve read, you’ve been working on really progressive characters, and a lot of progressive female characters as well. Does Snake’s ostensible ideology factor in at all to how you approach writing Snake, or do you attempt to strictly dial it back to 1980s thought processes and macho ideals? Are you trying to blur the line between the modern era and fake 1997, or are you trying to separate the two?
CS: There are definitely a couple troubling moments in Escape from New York. There’s a scene where Snake is creeping through a building and there are, like, four guys holding up this woman who is passed out, and they’re making her dance around. Snake just strolls on by. Even Kurt Russell in the commentary remarks upon it that he and Carpenter talked about it, and Russell says something like “Not my wife, not my life.” So that’s troubling, but I also don’t know if I totally agree with the idea of the idealized 1980’s macho asshole; I don’t think Snake was ever that, I just think that certain things tie more into his own self-preservation, this idea that he can’t afford to give a shit about people.
I am not trying to graft any of my opinions onto Snake, I’ll say that, but I am definitely trying to explore the world. All my books, I want anybody to be able to read them. I don’t want to make a book that people feel like they need to steer clear of if you actually give a shit about other people. This might be too deep of a question, though, Matt. [Laughs] I’m trying to open the doors up a bit, sure. I’m not interested in exploring or reinforcing the old tropes just because they were common back then, and I’m still writing from my own sensibilities, but I am using the framing of the movie and the time period. I don’t have to completely buy in and have girls on strip poles and dudes being total, boorish assholes; I do want to be inclusive.Continued below
I operate from this position of being a straight white dude, so I’m very mindful of the fact that I can give up some room to someone other than someone like me in a story then I will take that chance. I live with myself 24/7 and I’m bored of me. I don’t want to read any more stories about me. The fact that the book will have this travelogue of America will open the possibility of seeing people outside of Snake’s demographic, and Snake himself is just a quiet force amongst them; he’s not judging anybody, he just doesn’t give a shit. Snake’s mentality is about what people can do for him, or if they’re going to fuck with him.
One thing I did want to talk a bit more is that the book is Snake going to other states, to other places. But the book is called “Escape from New York,” so how do the other places factor into it? I don’t know if you can go what States he goes to.
CS: Well we’ve already announced that the first arc is ‘Escape from Florida.’ But I don’t know; my immediate impulse when they gave me the gig was that I wanted to do ‘Escape from Cleveland,’ because a big running joke in Escape from LA was everyone talking about whatever happened back in Cleveland. But I thought about talking about America now through this fictional lens, and Florida is just this… when you think of America, when you think of what is the most batshit insane part of America, it’s probably Florida. I follow @_FloridaMan on Twitter, and maybe he planted something in my head, but being able to deal with the insanity that seems to go on every waking moment in that state and then putting Snake Plissken in the middle of a weird mutated version of that seemed like the most fun I could possibly have and still get paid for.
It’s a 1997 Florida, but does it still have “Stand Your Ground” and all that nonsense in it?
CS: It definitely does, to a much more extreme degree. I wish I could talk all about it, but there are definitely aspects of current day events that make their way into past-future alternate Florida.
So taking over Snake, taking control of his future not just as a comic that bridges the gap between films or anything (we’ve seen a few Snake Plissken comics before), what do you find is unique about this comic opportunity or experience? Obviously you’re a fan of the franchise, of the character, of the movie, of Carpenter and that plays a big part of it.
CS: Sure. Well, I think the other Snake Plissken comics that happened were more like the later Die Hard movies are like? Hey, we have this cool story, so what’s a way we can shorten the set-up for it? You put Snake into the middle of this cool story and it makes it even better, you know? And while I haven’t read those comics, to be fair, I just wanted to do things fresh. I read some Wikipedia synopses of them, which is what I do for everything. [Laughs] But this is a direct sequel. We’re continuing the story. We’re not just doing an anthology books of, “hey, what if Snake did this? What if Snake did that?” No. Every arc is spun off of what came before it and creates consequences that feed into the next arc. There’s definitely a chain of cause and effect going on in our book. We’re keeping mindful of our own continuity and our continuity within the scope of the movies; we’re basically building out the world started in the movie and drawing a direct line from that into this next few stories. You’ll see what happens to Snake after he escapes from New York. Hopefully we can do it for a while.
That was my interest when I first came in, though. I didn’t want to do an anthology, I didn’t want to just do snapshots. This isn’t like Young Indiana Jones. I wanted to work on the story from this beginning point to an en point.
And you have already planned quite a bit, right?Continued below
CS: Right. I have a whole first year of stories planned out, which I’m talking over with my editors now. I have ideas for stuff… There’s a lot of America to cover. I say this now having written the first issue, but so far this is a really, really fun job and I wouldn’t mind doing it for a long time. But, yeah, there’s at least a year of stuff that’s pretty solid in my head, and now I’m just sort of sketching out what comes after that.