When I was in college I was quite pleased with myself that I found a way to download an SNES emulator on the computers in our campus computer lab so we could play NBA Jams with my friends. We would hold tournaments between classes and would often a crowd would form around us. People were engrossed with our games and felt at times like you held the crowd in the palm of my sweaty little hands. The four characters in “Mindset” who discover mind control and put it into a meditation app. Pretty much the same thing.
“Mindset” is the new Vault Comics series from writer Zack Kaplan (Eclipse, Port of Earth), artist and Eisner-winning artist John J. Pearson (Blue In Green), letterer by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou (The Blue Flame, Engineward), and designed by Tim Daniel. “Mindset” is a “mind-bending sci-fi thriller about four wide-eyed grad students who discover mind control and put it in an app, and a dark journey that follows, twists and turns, murder and mystery, love and heartbreak through the absurd world of overnight technopreneurs and social media empires.”
For a short time I forced myself to put down my phone and was able to speak to creators, Zack Kaplan and John J. Pearson about their work on “Mindset.” They discuss their own use of social media as creators, writing likable characters, creating a physical experience in comics and more.
A huge thanks to John and Zack for taking the time to talk to us about their new comic and be sure to check out “Mindset” in stores and online this June 29th.
I am going to assume it was due to mind control, but what was the genesis for this series and how did you two come together on the project?
Zack Kaplan: Since I was the illegitimate son of Ned Stark, I had to join the Night’s Watch, and that was where I met this plucky steward, John Pearson, deep in the dead of winter.
Actually, I had been playing with this idea for years, a noir thriller about a group of grad school students who discover mind control, put it in an app and fall into success, plagued by murder and conflict. I had been looking for the right artist, someone that could take some risks in the material and really elevate the themes. Then I read Ram V’s “Blue in Green,” and I discovered John’s coloring and digital art. As I followed him more, I learned John was also a talented artist who had a very inventive and noir style, very akin to Bill Sienkiewicz or David McKean, and I just thought he was perfect for the project. I reached out, shared the idea with him and it was right up his alley.
John J. Pearson: As Zack said, around the time I was working on “Blue in Green” and doing shorts with Ram V for “RAZORBLADES,” he reached out wanting to collaborate and we seemed to be on similar wavelengths with what we were looking to achieve with a project. Zack had a few ideas about potential projects that we spoke about if I remember correctly, trying to find the right fit, and “Mindset” just stood out straight away. Right from the start it was clear that we could create something that would work on multiple levels, and that the approach to the art could work in interesting ways to elevate the overall narrative. “Mindset” is a little outside of my usual wheelhouse, which had been largely horror-based in one way or another, which was another huge pull for me. I think it’s easy to fall into a rut with the types of stories that people expect you to do, so this is something that’s fresh to me, and with that comes new creative perspectives.
The series has elements of a near future sci-fi thriller, a murder mystery, with social commentary. What can readers expect from the series? Why is comics the best medium to tell this story?
ZK: I would clarify that while the mind control is a sci-fi element, there is nothing futuristic about the world. “Mindset” takes place tomorrow, in our ordinary world, a society plagued by manipulative technology that controls us from our very pockets. There already seems to be a lot of high expectations for our series from readers and press, and we intend to deliver. It’s a mashup of genres. It’s an exciting thriller with lots of twists and turns, it’s a seduction story about fitting in and gaining the power to influence others, and it’s a cautionary tale about social media and our own devices. Parts are slow burn and deep dives into the character drama of our hero Ben Sharp, and why he’s such a conflicted, intoxicating protagonist. We’re really trying to channel an introspective character study that we can all relate to in that regard. And then, it’s obviously a story about mind control, so there’s a lot of exciting twists and turns to discover just where the control is coming from. I’d also warn that this is not an action comic, so be prepared for suspense and drama, but it’s a thriller. But I think John’s artwork, and our collaboration with letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou and designer Tim Daniel, and our brilliant editor Adrian Wassel and the whole passionate Vault team, it will show that we’re really using the comics medium to create an experience, one we hope fans will return to again and again. We’re trying to use every facet of the comics medium to enhance the story, in ways that readers may have to read a second or third time to unpack.Continued below
JP: Given that we’re making a story about mind control, the unique ability of comics to play with the juxtaposition of words and images in interesting and potentially subversive ways is the perfect fit. We can pick and choose what we tell the audience, and what they see, and those elements might not always match in a way that plays into expectations. I think one or the most interesting things for me is that we’re making a series that allows for repeated readings, where you have different experiences as your perceptions of the context and characters shifts, and your expectations as a result are brought into question. It’s a nuanced approach as well, which is important, as it’d be much easier to do a story like this straight, but it would lack the ambiguity and emotional drive that hopefully keeps bringing the reader back to explore the narrative in deeper ways.
If anyone has seen just a page of John’s art they know it is incredible. The style brings with it it’s own level of storytelling. How do you two work together to achieve the most clear vision as a team?
ZK: We’ve developed a very collaborative back and forth. Early on, I provided a lot of information about the series, a lot of visual images for mood and inspiration. We talked out character designs and story aesthetics at detail. In the early issues, John shared his layouts and we’d really spent a lot of time discussing how to elevate the form of paneling to bring out the themes and emotions of the story. Sometimes, John is riffing on changing the approach that the script called for, other times I’m offering ideas on how to elevate an early layout. Recently, I even began pitching John the issue and discussing layouts before I write the script, because that gives him an opportunity to express where and how he might want to get creative, where to use double page spreads, where to create a sense of tension or claustrophobia and where to release that. Then, I go off and script based on that feedback. I think because we’re really trying to create layers to the story-telling, it requires us to cohesively build the comic together and communicate on a lot of levels. The same goes for our collaboration with Adrian and Hassan and Tim. It’s all about identifying the objective, getting as many ideas on the table and working together to achieve it.
JP: It’s all about the communication, and we seem to be good and making sure we’re all on the same page with our intentions and the collaboration as a whole. We’ll sit down and go through the issue, page by page, and talk about the story beats, mood, themes, subtext and intentions. Our approach to collaboration has quickly evolved as well, with discussions about how scenes could work from a very visual and emotive perspective, with Zack then taking our conversations onboard to really inform the writing. I think one of issues that can occur with creative teams is the discrepancy between individual’s creative visions and their realization, which can result from a lack of clear communication. What we’re doing is making sure the creative vision for “Mindset” is very much born from our discussions, and it’s 100% collaboration throughout at every stage.
John, with so many elements to your art how do you set out to create a page? Within a single page you use different shading, coloring, line width, realistic/surreal style. How do you begin to create a page and balance the art diversity with storytelling?
JP: It’s all reflective of the needs of the story, or what I perceive those needs to be. As I said before, myself and Zack talk in-depth about the intentions of the work early on in the process, and it’s those intentions that inform the stylistic choices. The single-page layouts, generally speaking, are largely straight-forward, which is important to make sure the clarity of communication isn’t clouded and to give a framework that keeps the work accessible. There’re certain expectations that audiences have when they pick up a mainstream American comic, and those expectations can be pushed, played with and challenged, but there needs to be an element of accessibility or familiarity in order to maintain engagement. I think for me, having those elements of familiarity in place means that a reader is much more willing to follow the visual narrative into creatively riskier territory than if they feel uncomfortable from the outset. You get them to trust you through playing into their expectations, and then that makes the impact of an alternative approach all the more powerful. That’s where the stylistic variation and divergent approaches become the focus, attempting to push the emotional experience, mood, and atmosphere of the story through various methods. It might be the use of line weight to reflect importance, texture to imply emotion, shifting patterns to infer internal states, the use of negative space to show presence, and so on. It’s never without intent though, it’s all there to push the story we’re telling, be that to heighten the interaction you have with characters, subtly shift subtext or discreetly foreshadow narrative elements to come. It’s all just done in a way that is more instinctive and gestural in approach than something strictly literal, but for me that’s the sweet spot where you can make really interesting connections with the reader.Continued below
In the announcement for the series, it was mentioned the series tackles the idea of how you influence on social media without being influenced. Comics, like a lot of industries, are so reliant on social media. Creators spend a lot of time online promoting comics, pushing FOCs and connecting with readers. How do you two balance the influence that comes with social media as creators?
ZK: How do we offer critical analysis of dangerous social media while at the same time exploiting said dangerous social media for our benefit? Lots of guilt, and maybe smiles. Look, I think technology is affecting us all in ways we can’t comprehend, and the series is taking readers on a big picture assessment of that and asking them to consider how we handle it now and in the future. But as a creator, sharing our stories and using social media to do that is part of the process. But I’m not looking to influence anyone and I don’t really feel comfortable with the idea of being influential. I’m certainly not trying to influence people to buy my favorite tennis shoes. I am hopeful about sharing this comic series, which we are all passionate about, and if it intrigues and resonates with people, then they can read it and enjoy it for themselves. And truth be told – the world of social media will plague anyone on it because you are bombarded with perspectives and announcements and it can be a very controlling place. It’s hard to engage with others on a human level and at the same time protect yourself from the experience’s influences: and that’s the point!
JP: It’s obviously an integral part of the majority of creative outputs where people are looking to build and connect with an audience, but the whole point is that we’re conscious of that while also prompting questions about it through this series. Communication has fundamentally changed, and it happened a long time ago, so if you want to reach new audiences then you need to understand the shifting nature of digital communication and social media. Personally, I don’t post online half as much as I should, but I’m ok with that. There’s something absent from online communication, and that missing element is something that I very much relish when engaging with people face to face, which is also absolutely at the core of my artistic practice. I also teach comics at University, so if we’re talking influence then in some ways being a responsible influential individual is pretty integral to how I approach my interactions, both in-person and online. I have to create influence, we all do to different degrees, but the reflection on our own responsibilities and ethics in relation to the level of influence we have is an ongoing concern for all of us. Hopefully what we’re doing with “Mindset” can help shine a light on those concerns a little more for readers, and we can all dig a little deeper on our individual responsibilities when it comes to ideas of influence.
The series comes out at a time when many people have become weary of “tech bros” (maybe not enough people) , nfts, and social media as a whole. With a story that centers around characters in that and around that world how do you approach getting readers invested in the story/characters? What do you see as the heart of the story?
ZK: Well, first and foremost, this is not a story about tech bros. And there are no NFTs or cryptos here. It is a story about the world of Silicon Valley, about the business of technology and about the dangers that come with those worlds and the products of those worlds. This stuff is happening right now, so we have to have stories that explore how technology is effecting our society. I hope we create an engaging story by focusing on our protagonist, Ben, who grew up as a genuine good person and a dreamer with the hope of changing the world and doing something valuable with his life. And now he’s barely graduating, he’s got no job prospects and he feels lost. Social media and modern technology are taunting him with all his peers falling into mindless success, and he genuinely wants to do something more important. He’s different. So, when he and his friends discover mind control, they set out to put it in a meditation app to help others. I think the intentions and the place where they come from is a vey relatable and human engine. That said, things don’t go accordingly to plan, and that’s because technology and social media are inherently control-based. And there is a dark side to falling into success in these worlds, and we do get to explore that. I think the heart of the story is that we all want to be seen and we all want to use social media to be connected, but we don’t want to be controlled or manipulated by other people or by devices? So how do we get there? How do we maintain our humanity?Continued below
I haven’t seen it listed in previews so wanted to ask is this a limited series or plans for a longer run?
ZK: “Mindset” is currently set to be a six-issue miniseries.
You guys have talked about creating a physical experience with this book. Even with the prevalence of digital comic releases the medium is still driven by physical collectors. What do you feel you have done with this series to cultivate that physical experience?
ZK: John can speak a great deal about the visual aesthetic which I think is creating that physical experience, but in addition, I’m hoping to have a narrative that has some non-linear elements and is told from the protagonist’s view in a subjective way, so it’s open to interpretation and it gives readers a desire to connect with each other to talk about it. What did you think was going on? What was your experience? In addition to the narrative design, I think in conjunction with Vault Comics, we have some fun ideas on how we plan to make the comic more than just a reading experience, everything from some creative covers to maybe a couple fun marketing experiences. We’re hoping, ironically enough, our little techno thriller brings people together.
JP: The physical experience we talk about is more linked to the reading experience than anything. We’ve got some interesting things lined up with Vault to extend our intentions, and build on the physical act of engaging with a comic, but the main focus for me is the impact the story is having on the reader on a cognitive and emotive level. In a lot of ways, we almost want the reader to be implicit in how their own experiences play out as much as the experiences of the characters. We want people to talk about what they’re reading, to reflect on their own relationships with technology and social spheres, and to cast a more critical eye on their own existence. The visual approach here is one that tries to find ways to communicate a range of experiences that work with, and at times against, the written narrative, in order to push this idea of a physical experience. If you can look at a series of images, and truly make an emotional connection to them based on how they’re shown, then that in turn has a very real and physical impact that is hopefully long lasting.
What do you hope readers take away from the series and why should they pick it up?
ZK: You know, I write what interests me, and I think there’s a lot of interesting things going on in modern technology and society, so I hope our series makes readers think a little, I hope they enjoy the twists and turns and exciting reveals of our thriller, and just maybe, control everyone with our mind control.
JP: We’ve made a series that is trying to engage readers on multiple levels, and prompt questions about our interactions and relationships, both with technology and each other. It’s a series of dualities, of connection and isolation, of gain and loss, of truth and lies. It’s physical experience, and one we hope will impact readers long after they’ve put down the final issue.