Stephen Graham Jones on “Earthdivers,” Time’s Inexorability, and Loving Comics

By | August 22nd, 2022
Posted in Interviews | % Comments

Back in April, IDW announced a new line of originals to debut in 2022. Among those titles was one written by acclaimed horror novelist Stephen Graham Jones (“The Only Good Indians” and “Marvel’s Voices: Indigenous Voices” #1), illustrated by Davide Gianfelice (“Daredevil: Reborn” and “Ghosted”), colored by Joana Lafuente (“Transformers”, “Eat and Love Yourself”) and lettered by Steve Wands (“Gideon Falls”, “Snow Angels”): “Earthdivers: Kill Columbus,” a time-travel story about attempting to prevent the creation of America, and thus saving the world from destruction.

With a team like that and premise that has a ton to chew on, to say this was exciting would be an understatement. The book even made our Soliciting Multiversity list for Sept. Thus, we’re extra excited to have been able to sit down and chat with the writer and talk about the book, its themes, the intricacies of time-travel, and just how many pounds the Hulk can hold up.

Thanks to IDW and Stephen. Without further ado, the interview.

To get started, what’s your past connection with comics? Because you previously had done a story for Marvel for one of their anthologies? Is this the first longish form comics project you’ve worked on?

Stephen Graham Jones: Ah, no, I did a comic in February 2017 called “My Hero,” a really experimental comic, like a super indie thing. And then, shoot, a few months ago, I had a graphic novel come out “Memorial Ride,” but this is the first comic I’m doing with a big house. As for my own history with comics, man, it starts when I’m 12 years old and I find “Secret Wars” number four on the spinner rack at a gas station.

Wow. What about that comic kind of drew you in?

SGJ: You know, the way it worked was: we lived way out in the country and we’d got to town every two weeks so my mom can grocery shop. There’s a gas station about halfway to town, about probably 12 miles out of town, we lived about 25, 30 miles out and she would give us each 75 cents and we’d go in the gas station and buy a coke because cokes were pretty rare for us. So I went in to buy my coke, Dr. Pepper really, and I got apprehended by this, I had never noticed the spinner rack somehow and on it, on #4 of “Secret Wars” there’s the Hulk and he’s holding up like I forget what it says in the little box, but like 33 billion tons of rock or something. The Molecule Man has dropped a mountain on him and the good guys, Iron Man and Reed Richards and Captain Marvel and all them.

So Hulk is holding it up, he hadn’t held up the whole mountain, he’s just kind of wedging them a space out, and there’s some question on the front, like, how long can he hold it or something? Anyways, that was my first contact with superheroes, with comic books, and I picked that up and tried to finish the 12-issue series, I tried to finish that series, but you know, the way it works at the gas station. If you’re not the first to get one of the like three copies they got, then you’re missing out. So I didn’t read the first three until years later probably and now I read “Secret Wars” at least once a year. And when I teach I have a comic book lecture course that I do. And that’s the book we always start with: “Secret Wars.”

That’s awesome. Wow. You’ve got kind of a long history of loving the medium. Is it pretty cool to be able to write these single issues?

SGJ: Oh, yeah, it’s the dream. To tell you truth, if I’d have had any inroad into making comic books back when I was getting started as a novelist, who knows if I’d ever write novels. I had no idea how to get into the industry, and I asked one of my friends 10 or 15 years ago, Joe Lansdale the novelist, cuz he does a lot of comics. I said: “How do you do it? How do you break into comics?” I thought there was some secret door or secret handshake or knock or something. And he said, “what you do as a fiction writer, is you just keep writing your books, and eventually the comics people come to you.” So I did that. I just kept writing books and eventually, people started asking me to pitch them stuff and that turned into this.

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How did the “Earthdivers” pitch come about? You said they approached you?

SGJ: Mark Doyle at IDW, I don’t know how he found me, somehow he found me. Maybe he showed up in my inbox? It’s been a while so I don’t remember really clearly. But he said: “What do you got?” and I pitched him two ideas. Of those two, he liked the one that became “Earthdivers.” As for the pitch, it was initially a long paragraph, maybe 250 words and then I fleshed it out. Once he said “let’s build that one out” then I turned it into like a six page pitch document and then he had ideas for how it would work and everything. I think Maggie Howell was involved before I knew she was involved probably and, you know, wherever she coming from, I think she was coming from DC if I remember correctly, and she helped me flesh it out as well, so I just started scripting.

We worked on that first script pretty intensively as you do and got it all clicking right and settled on an artist and a letter and a colorist and then we got Rafael Albuquerque in to do that first cover and all those the other three artists to do the other three covers. It’s been like a dream, you know, like a big waterslide that I stumbled into and it’s just going faster and faster.

What’s the collaborative process been like with the artists? When you’re workshopping the scripts, did they have feedback on scenes? Did you get back pages, tweak things?

SGJ:As for the script, yeah, they had ideas. But it wasn’t like, this panel is wrong, or this page turn needs to be like this, it wasn’t those kinds of things. It was, I think we need to understand the character’s emotions a little better so let’s give that two more pages, and those kinds of things, which are really helpful of course. As for working with the artists, Davide, it’s like any writer/artists relationship. I’m sure he submits, thumbnails with proposed layouts and we all go through, me and Maggie and Mark, and generally just approve everything, because he’s really, really, I mean, he has a really great visual imagination. When I script I usually don’t say, this panel has to be like this, and this tier has to work like this. I usually will break things down into panels one through six, or sometimes a splash page, or a two page splash or a two page spread or something and then he turns those thumbnails into pencils, really, really good pencils then he inks them. And there are adjustments along the way, as there always are. My favorite moments really are when he is able to express something with his art that erases my words, it makes my words no longer necessary. That’s what I like the most.

Could you give any examples of that? I guess in the first issue, because I haven’t seen any of any of the rest.

SGJ: Have you seen all the first issue? Or have you just seen those teaser pages?

I’ve seen the whole thing.

SGJ: Oh slick. That’s nice. Let me think. I’m juggling three “Earthdivers” issues right now in various stages of completion so it’s hard to keep them straight.

I think, you know, maybe this is probably about page four or five, it’s when Tad is cutting Rodrigo’s throat, I initially had that happening different way. In a really talky way, which was me smuggling exposition in that Tad was a linguist, which is to say, I wanted to go into a diagram of the throat to show how sounds are produced in the human throat. And Davide was able to do things differently, much more directly, you know, he’s really saved me a lot of times throughout these issues because he’ll do things directly that I want to overcomplicate.

One really good example of what he’s done is just in the character sketches before we were even doing thumbnails or layouts or anything. He gave us some proposed looks for the protagonist of these first six issues, Tad, and he gave him a peculiar haircut. I had never envisioned Tad having that haircut but I immediately glommed onto it because it was right. That became such a big story thing that carries through all six issues. So just little stuff like the way he does a character changes the story I was going to tell in really positive ways you know.

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Speaking of the characters, the first issue kind of keeps a lot of them fairly mysterious. Was that kind of an intentional beat instead of giving us one focal character, we do follow one character, but primarily, it feels like the opening of an ensemble horror film.

SGJ: Yeah, yeah. No, that’s a good way to phrase it. I mean, this is going to be an extended series and it’s kind of a three hander you know? It’s Tad and Sasha and Yellow Kid; those are the the main characters. So you’re right. For me, Tad is the main character of this first arc. Of course it’s his decisions drive the plot. I guess that’s the way I look at it. But yes, I am doing work to flesh out Yellow Kid and Sasha and Emily too. I guess I said three-hander. It’s a three-hander in 2012. But then Tad is in 1492.

Is this your first foray into science fiction?

SGJ: No. Or people say I’ve done science fiction with a novel “The Bird is Gone” that came out in 2002, which is kind of like an alternate history. It proposes that something different happened and now the world is a different place. It’s like a parallel kind of world. And that was really fun. I love that. I’ve done a lot of science fiction stories as well and lots of my horror stuff will have kind of, I don’t know, pop science underpinnings. I guess I read a lot of science and so it finds its way onto the page and I read a lot of science fiction as well.

What is it about kind of like time travel narratives that you think are so appealing to read or to think about?

SGJ: I think that for everyone, we all have regrets. I mean, not all of us are like sitting in a prison cell with those kinds of regrets but we’ve got regrets, we wish we’d had done this or that differently. Time travel engages the fantasy of life, I could go back and fix this. But the problem with time, I think there’s a reason why you move only one way through the timestream, or the timeline, whatever you want to call it. I think if we could go back and jack with things that we would break everything. We’re not to be trusted with the timeline, I don’t think. It’s good if we just keep going one way on that treadmill. But we love the fantasy of what if. What if I could undo do this? What if there was a magic key that unlocked a better now?

Is that tension going to be explored in “Earthdivers?”

SGJ: Oh, yeah, definitely. For sure. Both scientifically, and probably ethically as well.

Where do you fall on the time travel theories? Like, Is it even possible to change the past?

SGJ:You know, my suspicion is that there’s physics we don’t know about yet or there’s extensions of current physics that preclude us from doing it. I kind of do suspect that there are ways to view the past, or maybe view the future, but as far as transporting there, I think that there’s laws out there we don’t know about that would shut that down. It’s not just about, as you near the speed of light, your mass gets unwieldy and everything falls apart; it’s not that kind of thing necessarily. It’s like with quarks, you know, they say quarks are entangled so there’s one here and there’s one like 1000 million miles away over here, and they’re entangled such that anything done to this one kind of makes this one to shutter or something. But when we look at one of them, then it becomes one instead of two, you know, and I think that it’s almost like perception makes the gravity hug this little quark over here in a certain way. I think that there’s probably something like that keeping us from going back in time or forward in time. I mean, we are going forward in time in our plodding way, but we can’t jump 50 years, you know?

Can’t do it in the same way. Not like you can go 50 miles. I’m wondering how many of the characters in “Earthdivers” have even considered that or if they’re just like, “gotta fix things?”

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SGJ: Just one of them. I guess two of them really want to fix things, one of them’s along for the ride, and one of them has thought these matters through.

So the central premise of “Earthdivers” is: world’s falling apart thanks to climate change, which is done very quickly in the first page, very effectively there, and these four are going back in time, or one of them is at the moment, to stop America from ever existing. So the solicit I was given called this a controversial new series. What is so controversial about it?

SGJ: I’m down in Pueblo, Colorado. I live a little bit up here in Bolder but 110 miles or so is Pueblo, they have like protests against people changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. There’s that stuff goes on, like you can see Sopranos episodes about that kind of stuff as well. As for that line you got, that it’s controversial, that’s probably it, that I’m coming at the person who opened up the West basically, or who’s credited with opening up the West to settlers to the colonization to smallpox to slavery to all this stuff.

Why specifically him as this focal point then for the comic?

SGJ: Because it always feels like such luck that Columbus found his way over to wherever he landed, we’re not super sure where he landed, but wherever he landed down in the Caribbean. It feels like an arbitrary random thing that is a cause and the effect is 90% of the Native population dying and we lose our land and America, like, metastasizes in grows up, and becomes like the world policeman and very irresponsible ecologically, and kind of setting a model for that for the world. So if this one arbitrary, random discovery can be delayed, then maybe history doesn’t fall out the way it did.

The idea is, when you go back in time to change something, you don’t go back to some just random time and try to invent car batteries or something. You go back to Crux points, to hinge points, in history, and you’re like, I’m gonna flip the dial from A to B, and then the world’s gonna be different. I’m going to show them some perpetual motion machines, so they never have to invent the combustion engine and then we don’t pollute our skies, that kind of stuff. I mean, everybody always talks about going back and you know, isn’t there a rule about going back and killing Hitler or something? But the problem for me with that is: number one, would history just supply another Hitler for us, you know, would we get another one in his place? But number two: why kill Hitler when he’s like, 40? Why not go back in his crib and kill Hitler? But what’s the ethical complications of that? What are ramifications of that anyways? Just killing a baby in its crib? That doesn’t seem very fair. Because at that point, he’s not the monster that he became, you know?

Are these some of the questions that the characters will be exploring in future issues?

SGJ: Yeah, they’ll be brushing into this kind of stuff.

It opens the question of “Why not go back further from when they’re already at sea? Why not try to prevent the whole enterprise from even getting off the ground?

SGJ: The trick is you got to find bottlenecks where one person can stick a pole and things and wrench it around. So yeah, Tad or somebody could have gone back to Isabella’s court and use political means to pressure her into not funding this expedition. But to tell you the truth, to me, that’s a really boring story. It’s a lot more fun to me to be on the high seas fighting Columbus.

That’s fair. That sounds more fun. I don’t want to get too much into spoilers at the issue, because I think it’d be just coming out as this as this comes out. [Editor’s note: It’s coming out late Sept. Whoops!] There are a whole other sets of ethical implications near the end that Tad has to has to kind of wrestle with. What’s more important, the people or the mission?

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SGJ: That’s not just a time travel thing, or this mission thing, it seems to be a soldier thing. You know, anybody who’s in these positions? How do you know what’s the right call? You take orders for sure and you’re basically somebody’s gun, and they’re pulling the trigger. Still, you get your feet on the ground and you’re like, do I really want to do this? Am I compromising myself and what are the what’s gonna be the fallout of that? For sure.

One of the lines from the first couple pages that’s kind of been rolling around in my head is this idea of leaving versus staying after the apocalypse or, an apocalypse? It feels a lot bigger than what’s been explored in the first issue, and it feels like it’s kind of central to the whole project. Would you be able to talk on that?

SGJ:Yeah. My idea is that the same way all the Europeans came to America and used it up, now they’re blasting off to go use another planet up or use, I don’t know, a generational starship or something but they’re leaving behind the wasted place, the wasted landscape, and they’re saying, “Look, you Indians, you can have this place back now. We’re done with it.” And because these are the one percenters, they can afford these tickets on these rocket ships to wherever. I guess what I’m saying is, these people are not having to deal with the consequences.

I feel like it’s always us, not always us specifically, but I think we who aren’t the one percenters have to deal with the fallout from all these people not just blasting off in the space, but you know, driving their fancy cars and doing all their stuff, you know? I mean, there is definitely some us versus them thing going on, which is a dangerous dynamic to kind of engage for sure because anytime you other someone, you’re kind of turning them into an object that you can dispose of. But these people blasting it off, I don’t suspect I’ll follow them into wherever they’re going. Much more, I’m much more interested in what happens to the Americas, into history.

I was gonna say I didn’t expect us to be following those going into space. One of the interesting parallels between the past and present in the comic is we are technically following those going into the new world, while leaving the ones in the future to their own devices. I guess I’m trying to find a question that probably would have a better answer at the end of the series.

SGJ:: Yeah.

With regards to most of your writing, you tend to be known for your horror writing. Your most recent series is focusing on slashers in the slasher genre. What elements of the real life horror is going to be coming into play here. And like what, maybe not genre tropes, but you know, your background and history with that, how are we bringing that into this?

SGJ: Definitely. I am definitely bringing that in. When Mark and Maggie at IDW were talking this through with me before we actually started, that’s one thing that I really wanted me to feel confident that I could do, get gory and as horror as I wanted to. I mean, there’s a little bit of that in the first issue but it gets it gets worse and worse. To me, this is actually a horror story with a science fiction premise, like Event Horizon or something? Because it gets pretty violent by the end.

I had a feeling. As I was reading it, I’m like, “I’ve got a feeling like this is gonna take a twist at some point.”

SGJ: [Laughs] Yeah.

Are there any larger mysteries in the series that you can’t wait for people to get to? Like “Oh, I can’t wait for this shoe to drop or that?”

SGJ: There definitely are. I think there’s one that drops in number two, and there’s one that drops number three, actually. Then after that I have to start ending it, you know, because four, five and six are the are the back slip so I can’t be introducing new things anymore. But yes, there are. And that’s what I like when I write a story. I like to make the audience, the reader, think “oh, so now understand what’s going on,” but then pull the rug out from under them. You know, that’s my favorite thing like that. I think the book that’s in the world recently that did this the best was “Gone Girl,” you know? Like, halfway through, it just changes and you’re like, “What is going on? And I can’t stop reading either.” That’s what I want to do to people or do with people.

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Was there ever a moment that you maybe wanted to get away from working in the same genre? Or was it? Oh, no, I get to explore this in a whole new way.

SGJ: Yeah, probably the second: I get to explore it in a whole new way. Because I don’t see any reason to leave horror. I like to play in other fields but horror is where I always come home to. But for me, the rush of doing a comic book is getting to express that stuff in a different mode, through a different media. It’s really fun. It takes me longer to write comic book scripts than it does to write stories and novels. Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing stories and novels for nearly 30 years now but it could also be that with comic books, because you only got 22 pages to play with it at time, before I write any dialogue, captions, panels, I have to go through and beat it out, like outline it page by page and what’s gonna happen here, what’s gonna happen here, and how to stage the page turns and all that kind of stuff, which is a totally different way of thinking than I’ve ever done. But it’s really productive.

What I’ve found too is, if I know what the arc of this issue is going to be, then I’ve got page 22, and to get to page 22, I usually need two or three pages and so I have 18 through 22, and then I can kind of go build my outline backwards and then I find the starting point. It’s really fun and I keep waiting to see if it’s gonna make me a different kind of fiction writer, I don’t know.

I guess we’ll find out!

SGJ: Yeah. Yeah.

Is this a story that you see potentially having more or is it one that’s certainly closed off at one to six? Like, this is the shape of it, there really isn’t room for more avenues to explore afterwards.

SGJ: No, there is definitely more. It opens it up.

The trick with this kind of stuff is you want to close off the dramatic line, which is the problem this like story is trying to solve, what this crew is trying to accomplish, but you leave the narrative open. Dexter is a good example of this. Each season finished off like Dexter against the ice truck killer desk, Dexter against like John Lithgow, or whoever it is, you know, it wasn’t really John Lithgow or whatever his character’s name is. Each season closes that off but the narrative is, you’ve still got Dexter, a blood spatter technician or whatever he’s called, who’s also compelled serial killer, you know? And how is he going to balance those two parts of his life and keep from being detected and still try to do some version of good and all that? Which is to say you build a conflict with really long legs but the little dramatic problems are solved episodically. Serial comic book telling is episodic episodic storytelling but you still have arcs within that, of course. But yes, this does keep opening and opening up and the fun part about time travel is just because you’ve crossed a series of years or months doesn’t mean that somebody else can go back and jack with that.

Oh, that’s worrying.

SGJ: Yeah, everything you do can always, ideally, be undone.

If you mess up too badly, you can feel confident that hopefully someone will come back and fix it.

SGJ: Yeah, it’s like an Etch-a-sketch. When you mess up drawing the Mona Lisa, you shake it and start over.

Cosmic Etch-a-sketch. Wonder if that sits right up there next to the Infinity Gauntlet.

SGJ: Yeah, haha. Cosmic Cube.

That sounds like it would be terrible. An Etch-a-sketch with the power to rewrite reality. You’d get the redrawing of, what was that? That painting where they messed up Jesus’ face?

SGJ: Oh, yeah, that’s right. That would be fun to go back and not mess it up.

About halfway through issue 1, Tad tells the story that gives the comic its name. Was that something that came before the idea for the comic, which helped build it out, or was it something that as you were writing, you’re like “this applies very well to this and can be used kind of as a motif?”

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SGJ: It did not come first. It came really, really late. What happened was, I initially had a different title for this but then once I talked the story through with Mark and Maggie, that title that I originally had no longer held, it didn’t pertain anymore. So they said, “Hey, why don’t you come up with the new title?” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s easy enough.” So I was casting around for two or three days, and I had a whole lot of options and none of them were right, what I considered good enough.

Then I just was talking to my wife one night and I told her this title problem I’m having, and she doesn’t read comic books, but she’s really good at being analytical and objective and she said, “well, this is a story about trying to start over, isn’t it?” And I said, “Yeah.” And she said, “Are there any Native stories that are specifically about that,” and I immediately “Earthdivers” is what I fell on. I sent that to Mark and Maggie and they both loved it as a title and then it found its way into the comic book as a story element. And you’re right, it does become like a motif that kind of snowballs bigger and bigger throughout these six issues.

That’s really cool. Those are the fun process things that are so integral, but it came so late.

SGJ: Oh, I know, it’s so weird.

Does that happen often in your work?

SGJ: The work of mine that actually ends up going somewhere and doing something, that nearly always happens with those pieces. An example would be a novel I did in 2007, called “Ledfeather.” And I was trying to hinge it all on this one guy on the basketball court making a shot in a basketball tournament. And I got to the end, and he made that shot. And it was super boring. I’m like, “well, this sucks.” I wrote 200 pages for nothing; it didn’t matter at all.

I thought I owed the characters a ride back to their home anyway, so I put them in a car and they’re all driving home and then the real ending of the story came – she stands up from a ditch and waves the car down. I still get like chills thinking about it because she is the perfect thing to have happen there but I had no idea she was waiting there in the ditch, you know? She came, not just late, but she came almost after the fact and it made everything come together in a way I never would have guessed. And in any of my stories and stuff that actually work, that’s the way it happens for me. I just get lucky, you know.

Elias Rosner

Elias is a lover of stories who, when he isn't writing reviews for Mulitversity, is hiding in the stacks of his library. Co-host of Make Mine Multiversity, a Marvel podcast, after winning the no-prize from the former hosts, co-editor of The Webcomics Weekly, and writer of the Worthy column, he can be found on Twitter (for mostly comics stuff) here and has finally updated his profile photo again.