Ezra Claytan Daniels had an incredible 2018, a year in which his stunning, semi-realistic science-fiction graphic novel Upgrade Soul, tore through the comics/graphic novels awards scene, winning damn near close to everything.
Here at The Beat, our august reviewers eve wondered whether Upgrade Soul was the best sci-fi comic of the decade. Really, things couldn’t have gone much better for Ezra Claytan Daniels, who had worked on Upgrade Soul for years, initially conceiving it as a digital reading experience (more on that below). Earlier this year, it was also announced that Upgrade Soul’s accompanying soundtrack by Alexis Gideon would get a special vinyl release. Well, now that release is upon us. In fact, the vinyl soundtrack is slated to hit stores this month on Oct. 25.
In addition, the innovative Upgrade Soul app is getting a relaunch with upgrades of its own. Designed by Eric Loyer, that app first hit seven years ago, and it was perhaps a bit ahead of its time. Now, both technology and the reading preferences of many have caught up with the app’s ambitions, and the creators have worked to incorporate the score, 3D picture-box effects, and more immersive navigation into it. You can find it soon in the ‘entertainment’ category of the app store.
Anyway, The Beat recently had a chance to send some questions to Ezra Claytan Daniels about his work, his big year, and the newness coming out this month. You can find his very thoughtful answers after the jump, which features more info about how to get both the app and soundtrack.
The UPGRADE SOUL app, which includes the first story’s chapter, is available as a free download. Throughout the month of October, the entire story can be unlocked for $6.99. Beginning November 1, the entire book can be unlocked for $7.99. A preview of the app can be seen here: (https://youtu.be/14CPAXh3NYA)
The UPGRADE SOUL Original Soundtrack Standard Edition, with black vinyl, retails for $18.00. The UPGRADE SOUL Original Soundtrack Limited Edition, featuring color vinyl, is exclusively available through FPE Records’ website, via Bandcamp or directly from Ezra Claytan Daniels at appearances. The UPGRADE SOUL Original Soundtrack Limited Edition retails for $45.00.
THE BEAT: Forgive the general question, but I’d like to start by asking: with the almost unprecedented critical reception for UPGRADE SOUL over the past year, what has that been like on your end?
EZRA CLAYTAN DANIELS: It’s been by far the most exciting year of my career. This is the fantasy, right? I devoted a huge chunk of my life to making this thing, and the whole time I dreamt about the book finding a big and enthusiastic audience. It’s gone way beyond my fantasy at this point, and the surprises just keep coming. It’s wild to go from being a pretty much unknown lurker in the industry who couldn’t get published to save his life, to now having editors at major publishers actually reaching out to ME. It feels great!
THE BEAT: As a fan of UPGRADE SOUL who only knew it as a graphic novel, I was immediately fascinated by this sort of parallel expansion of the project we’re getting now — the app update and especially the soundtrack — how do you hope this ultimately changes or builds on the experience of the story for readers who are most familiar with the paper graphic novel?
DANIELS: The app is really the definitive version of Upgrade Soul. The story was originally designed for digital devices. In fact, if you look at the book, every page is cut in half horizontally because it’s essentially two iPad screens stacked. The composer Alexis Gideon was working on the soundtrack for the app at the same time I was working on the book, and it really became a tonal anchor for me. It’s inextricable from the story for me. And I kind of can’t overstate how much the music adds to the immersion of the reading experience. I know this story backwards and forwards, but in working out the scoring cues with the team, there were several moments that gave me chills. The marriage of art and music is a language that’s been honed in theater and opera for hundreds of years, and movie and video games for decades. We’re trained to respond to these cues, and when everything syncs up just right, it’s just incredibly powerful.
THE BEAT: Knowing UPGRADE SOUL was originally conceived as a digital graphic novel published as an interactive iOS comic app…I’m curious, what do you find appealing about this sort of innovative cross-media integration?
DANIELS: I’ve always been really interested in experimental forms of storytelling. Before I started Upgrade Soul, I did a narrative concert series in collaboration with a chamber orchestra, and I’d collaborated with the developer on Upgrade Soul, Erik Loyer, on a few experimental digital narrative projects. I also previously collaborated with Alexis Gideon on an animated rap opera. My interest in these forms was certainly exacerbated by my inability to break into the standard avenues of storytelling, but I really became passionate about the theories and approaches to telling stories in non-traditional mediums. I even wrote a manifesto for creating Digital Comics. (https://screendiver.com/digital-comics-manifesto/)
THE BEAT: This might be going back a ways, but how did Alexis Gideon come to be involved in the project and how much of a role (if any) did you have in the composition of the soundtrack?
DANIELS: Alexis is an old friend of mine from the Chicago DIY art scene. We share a very particular taste for cult films and weird horror, and I just loved his music. He’s one of those artists that makes you feel sad about the state of our culture because in a just world, he’d be a household name. I didn’t have a hand in the music other than giving Alexis a list of emotional tones we needed to hit, and sharing music back and forth that we liked that was in line with the tone we were going for. Erik Loyer did compose a few of the songs that appear in the app, though.
THE BEAT: I actually bought my copy of UPGRADE SOUL last year at The Escapist in Berkeley, California…and the clerk stopped me and said, you know that creator was just in here and signed that copy…and now I see part of the soundtrack release is a limited edition, 100-ever vinyl album…what draws you to including these kind of unique experiences with selling your work?
DANIELS: Oh, that’s awesome! I’m so glad somebody bought a book I signed! I don’t know, I’m just still so geeked to just have a real book in the world that I make it a point to go into every bookstore and library I see and check if they have my books in stock, and sign any copies they have. I think I’m always just thinking about what I personally like as a reader and consumer. Like, if I went into a bookstore to buy a book and discovered that the author had signed the copy on shelf, I’d be super geeked about that. And if I really liked a book and wanted to go back into that world with a different perspective, I’d be super excited to find out that the creators put out an immersive app with a killer score. And if I was going through a luddite phase, I’d be psyched to find out the same music could be purchased on vinyl. It’s probably stupid, but I actually don’t really think about whether or not other people will want these things or if I’ll make the investment back. I just want these things to exist in the world.
THE BEAT: Technology and the audience for digital graphic sequential storytelling has changed quite a bit in the seven years or so since this project began…how has that changed your sensibilities as a creator telling stories within that space?
DANIELS: Well, we’re hoping there’ll be a way bigger audience for an immersive graphic novel app than there was when we originally launched a partial version of it years ago. There are certainly a lot more mobile devices in the world, a lot more artists with iPads, and a lot more younger readers who don’t have the same attachment to physical products. As far as my approaches to storytelling, I’ve been making everything as versatile as possible with digital devices in mind. BTTM FDRS was also designed with iPad screens in mind, and my new mini-comic, Empathy Myopia, was designed to be seamlessly posted on Instagram and easily reflowable on a website.
THE BEAT: Finally, kind of ending where we began — with another somewhat general question — what are you working on now and what comes next?
DANIELS: I’m dipping back out of comics for a minute to explore other mediums. The Upgrade Soul movie is cruising along and I’ve been doing a lot of work on that. The BTTM FDRS movie is still moving, too. Big huge announcements coming soon on both of those. My minicomic, Empathy Myopia, will be available at www.radiatorcomics.com as soon as I print up some more (I sold out of my first run at CXC). And I have a few new graphic novel pitches that’ll go out as soon as I catch my breath!