Titan Comics recently released a video trailer for their eagerly anticipated series Surface Tension, giving a little idea of what to expect and showing off some of creator Jay Gunn’s stunning artwork.
As good as it was though, we wanted to know more, and were fortunate enough to be able to sit down and have an in-depth chat with Jay Gunn about the series, his motivations, and the challenges of putting his vision together. Here’s how the conversation went;
Big Comic Page: Firstly Jay, thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat with us. Surface Tension will be your official comic book debut, so tell us a little bit about your background, and what lured you into the world of comics in the first place.
Jay Gunn: My pleasure. For many years I worked in video game development. I occupied many roles from a game designer, concept artist, art director and game director. I even tried my hand as a voice over actor! Even before that time I had loved comics and as much as I loved working in the games biz’ I always dreamed of writing and drawing a comic book, something personal.
BCP: What’s the basic story behind Surface Tension? The ‘quick pitch’, if you like.
JG: A quick pitch would be: The Walking Dead meets Princess Mononoke via Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The synopsis is: 99% of the world’s population has been inflicted with a mysterious virus that caused them to walk out to sea, the pandemic became known as ‘the sea-sickness.’ No one has ever returned from the sea until one year later. Two survivors with no memory of recent events are found by an immune island community. The survivors are taken ashore but they have not returned alone for something alien now stalks the island!
BCP: What characters in particular should readers be looking out for?
JG: There is a debate at the heart of the series – how far would one be willing to go to save the planet and what might be the outcome of their choices. The story centres on two characters that face this moral dilemma – Two idealistic scientists, Erik Gravinsky and Megumi Suzuki who are studying the effects of pollution on the environment. Megumi has become embittered by her ecological research, she is now of the view that the planet would be better without us. Erik is the eternal optimist, he believes that humanity will overcome its destructive ways. On the coast of Sudan, during a oil spill disaster, Erik makes a discovery that could save the planet – a strange alien coral that has ability to absorb pollutants and create new life. Through a series of misguided events the idealistic Erik makes a choice to save the planet which leads to the human race being wiped out. Now Megumi has the power to save or destroy the remaining survivors.
As the story develops we are introduced to other characters who are simply trying to survive in a new world where man is no longer the top species.
BCP: Surface Tension has a fairly strong ecological message at its heart. Besides its horror and human drama aspects, the book also asks some fairly important questions about how far we’d be willing to go in order to ‘save’ the planet. I’m not sure if I’m speculating, but some of the themes covered in this book seem fairly personal to you. Would that be accurate?
JG: Yes, when I was growing up I had my own firsthand experience of an environmental disaster. When I was a very young child I lived in a small village by a river in the countryside. Sometimes the river would flood and the water would flow into our back yard where lots of fish would be washed up, the otters that lived nearby would venture into the garden to eat up all the fish. My mother was terrified of them and would keep me indoors and I would have to watch the otters from inside the house as they gobbled up the fish. I was fascinated by the local river wildlife.
In the area was a large industrial chemical plant, it was built next to the river and it seemed like a rather innocuous place. That was until the day something went terribly wrong with the reactors on the plant and it exploded! At the time the blast, that spread over a wide area of countryside, was one of the biggest post war explosions in Britain. When it was safe to do so, my parents drove their car through the disaster area and I remember seeing the abandoned and ruined houses, people belongings scattered about the gardens. The scorched earth of the riverside and finally the twisted hulking monstrous wreck of the chemical plant itself. I rather fancied that the wreck resembled the skeletal remains of a great beast! At my very young age it was very surreal and I didn’t quite understand what I was looking at but those images were seared into my young mind, it was like something from out of a Godzilla movie! As an adult I began to think about all of the chemicals and toxins that must have spilled into the river, what sort of damage did it have on the environment and the local river life? My family moved out of the area not long after the blast.
Of course we’ve seen much bigger disasters on the news, terrible oil spills, the destruction of various wars and nuclear melt downs. However, for me it all came back to that one childhood experience, I guess that was the moment that formed the idea for Surface Tension.
BCP: As well as the ecological aspect, the monsters and the human drama, you also seem to be delving into some spiritual and religious aspects in the first issue, with some of the islanders forming their own religion to worship the sea. Is that aspect of human nature something you’re interested in as a writer?
JG: Human beings have this amazing capacity to adapt to extreme situations and then attempt to rationalize the unknown. Many old and ancient religions are geographical in their origin and their gods are environmental or elemental in nature – the sun, the moon, the sky, stars, nature etc. Certain natural life cycles – life, death, birth would be incorporated into their religious belief systems.
In Surface Tension, humanity is witness to the phenomena of massive towering coral structures that rise out of the oceans, some the size of a sky scraper. No one knows where they came from and they seem to be cleaning the oceans and new life is returning to the sea but they also seem to be very alien in origin. It seemed natural that a cult would spring up around these mysterious corals, that some groups would consider these alien organisms as something divine and mystical.
I think some of the survivors would continue this worship for fear of being wiped out. However, there is another reason why some people begin to worship the corals but I’ll leave that for the reader to discover.
BCP: While this is definitely a dystopian tale, you’ve made sure that the artwork is still bright and beautiful throughout. Was it important for you to have that contrast from the usual bleak, dreary, ‘scorched-earth’ visual style traditionally associated with these kinds of stories?
JG: As much as I enjoy the ‘post apocalyptic’ genre I wasn’t interested in falling back on the paths that many others have recently followed. Surface Tension has its fair share of action and thrills, however, I wanted to craft what I consider to be an uplifting story that would have a broad appeal. I’ve always been interested in science fiction and fantasy that deal with our relationship with the environment, it’s a subject that interests me both in the real world and in fiction. I guess my touchstones were the original John Wyndham novel, The Day of the Triffids and Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. Both of those stories pit mankind against nature, one is pure pulp entertainment and the other is a more profound look at our relationship with nature – I like the idea of mixing those two examples to make something that is routed in the pulp genre but is also asking some big questions. Despite the devastating scenario of Surface Tension it was important for me not to create something that was too depressing or pompous and for that I wanted an art style that was bright and hopeful.
BCP: You seem to have managed to perfectly capture the aesthetic and the general ‘feel’ of isolated island life. Did you have to do any specific research to help you with this?
JG: Surface Tension is set on a fictional Channel Island sandwiched between Guernsey and Sark. As part of my research I spent some holiday time in the British Channel Islands (Jersey, Guernsey and Sark) . On the islands I politely questioned people about their lives, local politics and more mundane but very important matters such as where their water and energy comes from. I also did a lot of reading on the history of the islands, in particular the occupation of the islands by the Germans during World War 2. During the occupation the islands were cut off from the rest of the world with neither the Germans or the islanders able to leave the islands, there was a dwindling of supplies and natural resources that lead to starvation and the eating of all the live stock on the island including dogs and cats. This was great research on how the islands would cope during the catastrophe in Surface Tension. I was also delighted to discover that the islands had an ancient Pagan past with a number of Neolithic sites such as menhir’s (ancient standing stones) and dolmans (burial chambers), I put some of these details into the story to give the island community a pagan past.
Back home when I was writing Surface Tension it would be out in the countryside by a river so that I could hear the sound of water and imagine that I was still by the coast.
BCP: The creature design in the first issue is perhaps one of its most impressive aspects. Was there any specific inspiration for any of the monsters and ‘beasties’ featured?
JG: I guess there is a prehistoric aspect to some of the monsters, as if evolution had somewhat been reset. I also wanted to draw on Celtic folk mythology, in particular the Selkie myth, creatures that are part human, part seal.
A closer to home influence for the look of the ‘sea-sick’ virus was of my own personal experience of having cancer during the making of the book. I’ve now thankfully recovered but at the time my body went through all sorts of alarming changes, tumours and my skin pigment losing its colour due to my immune system fighting the cancer, it was all a bit ‘Brundle-fly!’ I would show my Doctor the drawings of the infected sea-sick and discuss how such an infliction would change the body, infected lymph-nodes, pigment loss and tumour growth. Of course the science behind the story are more fantasy than hard science but that unfortunate time in my life helped to inspire the texture and the tone of the creatures and the body horror.
BCP: You’re responsible for the writing, artwork, the colouring – basically every aspect of this title besides the lettering – was it important for you to have that level of control?
JG: I didn’t know any other way to do it and I was learning on the job! I had worked as a concept artist/art director at Sony and I had written preliminary scripts for video games, so I had a some experience as both a artist and a writer but nothing prepared me for this level of work! I’ll never underestimate the work load of a comic book ever again. There are so many aspects that you are responsible for – it’s as if you are the entire production crew! Looking back on it all I can see that I was being a little too ambitious for my first book (laughs). I subsequently learned that many artists have other people doing work on colour layouts and touch up work. I was doing everything on the page which is punishing in terms of time, workload and finances. I did have a team of editors at Titan to help me with the final polish of the dialogue and to bounce ideas, I appreciated their help and insights.
BCP: Would you adopt the same approach with any follow-up titles, or would you consider working alongside another writer or artist in the future to help share the workload?
JG: I’d only take the same approach that I took on Surface Tension if it was for a smaller project. The total page count for Surface Tension is the equivalent of around 8 US sized issues so that’s a lot of work for one person to undertake. You have to remember that as a Creator Owned artist/writer I was not paid a page rate so it’s a long time to go without income and I was having to turn down other jobs to get Surface Tension finished.
I’d certainly love to collaborate with a different artist or writer if the right project came along. I’m also very interested in writing a comic for another artist to illustrate so that it would free me up a little to undertake other projects.
BCP: Finally, besides Surface Tension, do you have plans for any other projects on the horizon?
JG: I do have a sequel idea for Surface Tension which is something that I would be very interested in doing, I’d like to explore what has happened to the world beyond the island setting, I’d like to explore the theme of religion in this new world. I’d like to break out of the isolation of the first series and have it as more of a journey story or ‘road movie’ – I see it as Surface Tension meets The Planet of the Apes.
I also have a number of shorter stories that I’m eager to write and draw and I want to try out different art styles, I’m keen to loosen up my style and be more expressionist in my style. I’ve been reading a lot of history books and watching a lot of German expressionist films so I’m keen to tell a story in that sort of style, perhaps in pencil and charcoal – something really dark and twisted! Then again I’d like to do a children’s comic – so we’ll see.
Surface Tension #1 goes on sale May 27th from Titan Comics, and you can expect an advance review right here on BigComicPage.com in the very near future.