By Matt O’Keefe
Featured image art by Ramon Villalobos.
The second in a line of miniseries from the Comics Experience-IDW Publishing alliance (read more about that here), Drones by Chris Lewis, Bruno Oliveira, Anderson Cabral and E.T. Dollman is one of the most bizarre and buzz-worthy comics I’ve read in a long time. A story of two Predator drone operators visiting a terrorism-themed hotel in Las Vegas, the book seems designed to set you off-kilter as it compares the war on terror to the equally horrific entertainment industry. I spoke with writer Chris Lewis to wrap my head around the weird and wonderful comic I just read and learn a little about how it came to be published by new imprint Comics Experience and distributed via IDW.
What inspired you to write a story that melded terrorism with entertainment?
I actually don’t think I’ve melded anything that isn’t already unified. Terrorism is without a doubt the biggest form of entertainment in the world today. Wherever you look, whatever glowing screen you have in front of you, I can almost guarantee that one of the top stories is about terrorism. It’s on TV, on the Internet, on our minds. And we’re fascinated by it. Terrorism and entertainment are the peanut butter and jelly of our time. Drones is my attempt to explore this absurdity. Only when we realize how much we are consuming can we choose to change our diet. As for the story, the idea came from analyzing my own interests. I am fascinated by politics, war and Waiting For Guffman, and this was the book that allowed me to synthesize all three.
Were you concerned about the marketability of a story about a “terrorist theme park” when first developing Drones?
Yes, but since my somewhat questionable definition of marketability is “everybody is dying to read the same kind of stuff I’m into” I figured it would be a sure hit!
Were you worried that the content would be deemed controversial, or did you feel protected under its satirical intent?
The only thing I was worried about was that the book would be passé by the time it came out. The fact that nobody has yet built a terrorism-themed hotel just boggles the mind. It’s a cash cow whose udders are full to bursting. Somebody needs to milk that liquid gold. Or maybe something similar does already exist, but its guests prefer the thrill of acting out their waterboarding fantasies away from prying eyes.
Drones is bizarre, in the best way. Everything about Drones, from the premise to the script to the art to even the lettering, gives off a sense of unease. What were you trying to accomplish by making the reading experience so surreal?
Las Vegas is stranger than fiction. So is the fact that these pilots are bombing people halfway around the world from the safety of air-conditioned trailers just outside the city. When you think about it, of course the U.S. military would choose to fly these missions from Vegas. The setting is perfect for both a job and a story that force you to suspend disbelief. Once you accept these things, it follows that the story is going to be a wee bit weird. And of course that old maxim: What happens in a terrorism-themed hotel in Vegas, stays in a terrorism-themed hotel in Vegas
You self-published three of the five issues and Kickstarted a trade before Drones was picked up by IDW. How was that experience valuable?
Because now I know how soul-crushingly expensive it is? Trying to self-publish single issues of a miniseries wasn’t a good strategy for me. For that to succeed you’ve got to have huge print runs and hit up a ton of conventions. I hauled those three issues around to one or two conventions, and people were naturally most interested in the first one. At that point I’m just thinking, “okay, maybe I can sell that person issue two next year…at cost.” The most valuable thing about that experience was getting in the scene, meeting artists and fellow writers, getting feedback from fans, learning what works and what doesn’t. The Kickstarter allowed me to do a relatively small print run of the trade. As opposed to the single issues, I now had with the trade a finished product available for readers, as well as something to show to potential collaborators and editors I hoped to work with.
You developed a small but loyal audience for Drones and then got it picked up by a major publisher. Do you think that’s an effective way to break in? Would you do it the same way again?
Well, even with this fantastic opportunity I’ve been given, I don’t think I’ve broken in to the industry quite yet. Maybe my tapping on the window got a little louder, though. Fellow Comics Experience member Jeremy Melloul just wrote a really interesting blog post about breaking in vs. building a career. In it, he talks about the necessity for creators to cultivate readership and build up a network of other professionals. With Drones, I’ve definitely taken a step in that direction, and would advise other aspiring creators to do just that – create.
When did Comics Experience and IDW approach you about publishing Drones? What role have they played in its development?
I’ve been a member of Comics Experience since 2010. Every issue of Drones has run the gauntlet of peer critique on the CE Creators Workshop. Jim Zub is one of the many professional writers who has popped in to offer advice, and he was kind enough to eviscerate an early draft of issue #1, saving me a lot of humiliation. I can truthfully and without exaggeration say that without Comics Experience there would be no Drones.
Andy Schmidt, former editor at Marvel and current president of CE, approached me in April 2014 to discuss the possibility of publishing Drones through his new partnership with IDW. I said yes right away. He forced me to think on it for a day, but I didn’t change my mind.
With previews coming up, are you concerned that the more conservative general comic book market will have trouble wrapping their heads around the material?
I’m going to drop a Si Spurrier blurb, in which he says “Drones is one of those books where – if you can just surrender yourself to the insanity and go with the flow – it all comes together very rewardingly.” The book has drone warfare, cross-dressing assassins, sexy surveillance, pancakes, and explosive goat fu action. What’s not to get?
You’re currently Kickstarting your next book, MIXMANCER. It’s about a superhero DJ, which is unique but not as out of left field as Drones. Did you want your next project to be a little easier to digest or was that just the next thing you were anxious to write?
Yeah, I wanted to do something short and easy after wrapping up Drones. Funnily enough, however, Mixmancer turned out to be one of the most difficult single issues I have ever written. The structure (or main “track”) of the book is based on one of the most famous comics of all time. Then I started to drop in snippets of some of my biggest influences, so you’ll find bits of The Brady Bunch, Kool Keith, Beach Boys, and Vonnegut sprinkled throughout. My goal was to create the world’s first mashup comic, something like The Grey Album, just with, you know, pop-culture avatars and femur-wielding monkeys. And not nearly as famous.
Drones #1 is now available in Previews with the order code FEB150450 and FEB150451 for the subscription cover. If you like surreal creator-owned, please share this to your local retailer. You can find Chris Lewis on Twitter @relicswish.