This June sees writer Sean Lewis and artist Hayden Sherman reuniting at Image Comics for THUMBS, a high-octane cyberpunk series being marketed as “The Social Network meets Blade Runner”.
We’ve been fans of Hayden and Sean’s work, both individually and together, for quite some time now, so the prospect of seeing them teaming up again on such an intriguing concept filled us with immediate excitement.
Thankfully, both creators were able to take some time out of their busy schedules to have a chat with us about the series, its inspirations, and its impressive page count.
BIG COMIC PAGE: Thanks for your time guys. Firstly, for our readers who may not already be aware, could you give us a quick rundown of what THUMBS is all about?
SEAN LEWIS: I’d say imagine a future where Mark Zuckerburg is beloved rockstar- he hosts a show on Saturdays and all the kids you know stream it. He gives free technology and video games to underprivileged kids. He makes a school with free tuition for the kids who excel with his technology. Now, imagine he is secretly turning those kids into an army.
Thumbs is a near future world, where Charley Fellows- nicknamed “THUMBS” for his game prowess- is one of the kids chosen for this special school. He has grown up raised by a virtual babysitter, named MOMtm, and has bought into the free tech and anti-government logic of his benefit, a Zuckerburg sequel character named Adrian Camus. I don’t want to spoil anything, but a big twist happens in the first issue that leaves our here, THUMBS, desperately searching for his sister- a girl who has been raised with completely conflicting ideals, and an army behind her.
BCP: Tell us a little bit about Charley (aka “Thumbs”), our leading man. What’s his story?
SEAN: Charley is an every kid. A teenager who is the best friend and not the leading man in his own life. However, he is thrown into the spotlight because there is no one left. I’ve always liked the idea of heroes who are possibly the worst person possible to be selected for their mission. Thumbs is what I would be like as a lead- not particularly brave or heroic but with a deep curiosity and loyalty to the people he loves. That loyalty forces him to behave more bravely than he ever would on his own. It is what makes him grow.
He’s funny and smart and desperately trying to make himself into the person the world needs him to be.
BCP: What kind of tone should readers be expecting from the series as it unfolds, and – without giving too much away – are there any characters in particular readers should be keeping an eye out for?
SEAN: I think it has elements of techno thriller mixed with traditional science fi. Warren Ellis and Philip K. Dick are big influences. If Warren Ellis had been asked to write a mash up of the Social Network and Ready Player One, this would be a reasonable result. Thumbs is our lead, but his sister Tabitha and his best friend Nia are huge characters.
And MOMtm. MOM is one of my favorite creations ever. An incredibly powerful, networked, artificial intelligence that is rearing your children. It shares info with the other Mom’s and can talk to all other technology. The possibilities with that character are limitless.
BCP: The series seem to be grounded in some pretty relatable modern fears about the use of technology. Were there any particular headlines or real-world incidents that went into the creation of this story?
SEAN: Oh, absolutely. I love the convenience of technology. (We can’t even do this interview without it) but I fear control. It conflicts me with all politics and movements like this- tech is so easy and addictive we willing give so much of ourself, in order to maintain that ease. I think global analytics, all the problems with Facebook, the proposal Amazon made to Brooklyn for HQ2 that was going to include free tech classes and training to poor kids, people on Twitter raging about everything and anything, the growing workday, the reality that tech allows our bosses to contact us at all hours of the day and expect a response… they all funneled into this world.
AND… the public speeches made by students after the Parkland massacre. I remember seeing lots of people posting “the kids are going to save us,” after seeing some of the speeches. Now, I thought the speeches were moving and those kids are incredibly brave- but I also thought how unfair and irresponsible it was that my generation were saying “the kids will save us,” when if we had any pride we would be saving the kids. That’s how I knew my main characters would be teenagers to young adults.
BCP: The world you’ve both created here feels a little less removed from the real world than a lot of other dystopian sci-fi comics. Was it a conscious decision to try and keep this one feeling a little more grounded in modern-day reality?
HAYDEN SHERMAN: It was definitely a conscious choice to have things feel familiar, visually. All of our tech-advancements are bound to bump up against what’s come before, and I think that idea is important to keep in mind with Thumbs. What we’ve built prior doesn’t go away the minute we’ve created something new. Instead they live on simultaneously, inhabiting the same spaces. That’s something we wanted to make sure could be seen, that the advent of new tech didn’t lead to a terribly different looking world. But it did lead to very different people.
SEAN: Um, I’m obsessed with the things I grew up with. And things I don’t see much of. I grew up around trailer parks- and so trailer parks seem to keep showing up in things I make. I have an obsession with Soviet Era Eastern Europe- which informs the world that Thumbs’ sister grows up in, referred to as THE POWER. That, of course, informs design.
As far as the technology, I just day dream where I could see us going. Like, could our narcissism, elongated workweeks and reliance on technology lead to us allowing a computer to raise our child? Sure. I mean, how much does that day care cost? If it were a 9.99 app in the Apple Store? I know people who’d start searching for reviews of it right now.
It might be that I feel grounded in our reality. I feel trapped. So, it’s harder for me to see galaxies during this book. I just keep seeing the kids I knew in the parks and wondering how do they get ahead now?
BCP: Hayden, something that always really draws me into your work is the way you design characters and worlds. How did you go about putting together the different ‘factions’ we encounter in the first issue? Any specific influences at play here?
HAYDEN: Oh Thank you! For Thumbs, we mostly see two distinct factions: the kids who’ve been recruited by a tech magnate, and the soldiers who fight for the elimination of that same tech. For the kids, I wanted them to be united by the technology they’d been given. They have no uniforms, and will wear just about anything, but they’ve all got various bits and bobs of tech on them. Most notably they’ve each got an arrangement of “hook ups” around their eyes which are used to mount phones and other things for VR use. The tech should feel like part of them.
For the soldiers on the other side then, I wanted them to feel nearly drone-like. We see a few variations of them throughout the issues, different sorts for different regions, and they’re all covered from head to toe. They also use a bit of tech, so they’re pretty much big hypocrites with guns. But I find that one allowance of tech interesting, where they’re clearly willing to break their own rules to protect what they believe in. It shows a crack in their society, while also pointing to how they’ll always keep the upper-hand. A good deal of Metal Gear Solid came in to influence their looks, Yoji Shinkawa’s got a way of drawing weird military stuff that’s very affecting.
BCP: Another thing that really impressed me about the first issue was the colour design and the way it plays into the technological aspects of the story. Could you tell us a little more about the use of the colour pink in the artwork?
HAYDEN: For the color I really wanted something that’d jump out each time it’s on the page. That pink hit the right spot for me. And it’s predominantly used only to color tech, which makes for a fun visual display of power. The more pink on the page, the more power tech holds in that area. Otherwise the book is pretty much monochromatic. There’s a bit of variation in there, but the goal is really to highlight the moments of pink.
BCP: The series is set to run for five issues, but each issue is significantly oversized compared to a ‘regular’ comic book. What prompted this approach, as opposed just having the series run for longer?
SEAN: I am very interested in what comics can be. I am also interested in creating an experience. Comics are amazing. I don’t think there is a better form. What did Brian Vaughan say about them? Something like “they’ll never go out of style because they are pure imagination?” That feels true to me. At the same time, I don’t see why they have to always be 22 pages. I don’t know why they have to follow a formula of Splash opening, 3 panel, 5 panel, 4 panel, Splash again… it’s not a knock on that. I like comics that do that, people are doing AMAZING things in that format. But I don’t feel like all stories NEED that.
Hayden is amazing. Like, I don’t think people have seen what he can really do yet. His design work, his paneling… he’s great. More room allows the art to breathe. It lets me really give a full arc of story with multiple layers in each issue. Also, it’s a better damn value!
COMICS are expensive. Everyone complains about it. A 22-page book is already 3.99. So, if we are going to charge that much I just feel like what if we give them 50 pages for a buck more. It’s the length of two comics, printed on better paper, with a heavier cover and EVERY PRINT ISSUE is going to have a backup sci-fi fi story from Hayden and me that won’t be in the trades or the digital versions.
Because I think that’s fun. Because I want to make something that slows your day down a bit, that gives you a full escape instead of 15 minutes of page flipping while you eat lunch. Because I can see how hungry readers are for complexity and newness.
That is a long answer- but I want something to feel special if you’re waiting 30 days for each instalment. So, it’s gotta feel like a birthday present you’re getting. Larger, full of extras and feeling like an art book in your hand.
HAYDEN: Sean hit the nail on the head here. We want to give you something that feels substantial and worthwhile. Something that you can sink your teeth into. More importantly, it allows us to really slow down and hit all of the story beats we want to for as long as we want to. With this format I could have one character just standing still for 4 whole pages if I felt the story needed it, and that’s the kind of freedom I love.
BCP: And finally, what would you each say to someone who hadn’t heard about THUMBS to convince them to give it a try?
SEAN: CONVINCE feels like such a hard sell. I’d say- I like things in my own life that make me feel less alone, that make me feel like someone else is articulating the fears and loves I have, I like books that take me to another world but invite me in the whole time. I think of TRANSMETROPOLITAN, SAGA, the UNWRITTEN (oh the Unwritten is great)… we set out to do that. We set out to give you more for your money. And I have too much self-hate to usually be hyperbolic about my own work- but, it’s really good. We’d love to have you join us.
HAYDEN: I’ll try and be hyperbolic for him. Sean’s written a wonderful story here, a story that I’m very proud to draw and very much look forward to seeing come out. We put our best forward, and I hope you’ll enjoy it.
THUMBS #1 goes on sale in print and digital on 5th June 2019, priced $4.99