By Matt O’Keefe
One of Thrillbent’s first launches, The Endling is a story in which characters of the present interact with humanity a billion years of evolution later. I chatted with its writer Jonathan Larsen about the story and art of The Endling, writing in the “swipe” style that Thrillbent pioneers, his future in comics, and a lot more.
How did the story of The Endling first take shape?
I wanted to explore how social forces could shape human evolution and the last genetic human seemed like a good hook for that. I felt that telling the story in the future, though, or resorting to time travel, would pull us too far out of this world and I very much wanted the story to contrast future human evolution with humanity in its current form. That interest in humanity, actually, is what drew me to Cecilia Latella, our artist. When I saw her previous work I just fell in love with her style generally and her characters specifically. They’re just achingly human and so fully realized as individuals.
Because The Endling has two young women in lead roles, I wanted to make sure they were (a) instantly distinguishable from each other and (b) non-sexualized. Cecilia’s amazing way with faces, body types, body language, etc. really made it possible to make Amber and Caitlyn and the male characters, for that matter, really come to life, which was essential for a story that’s at heart about what drives us and how we act on those drives. I should also say that we started with Paul Mounts–who’s a buddy of mine and we’re hoping to work together again some day–on colors. Jenn Manley Lee came in on colors later, referred by Mark Waid, and she and Cecilia are just killing it every week creating a gorgeous, realistic, unique but utterly accessible world.
What made you decide to make the central character young women?
When I first got the idea for The Endling the lead was a white male. Because…um…I’M a white male? And I thought about it and realized there was nothing about the story I had in mind that required or even leaned toward a male lead. And as soon as I began to toy with the idea of making the lead a girl (she’s about 17) I found that actually opened up a lot of terrain I might not have been able to explore if my lead were a teenaged boy. In terms of the emotional landscape we were operating on, the relationship dynamics, etc. As Charlie Jane Anders has pointed out more than once, there are PLENTY of successful sci-fi/action franchises with female leads, so I think The Endling was made more accessible, more mainstream, more appealing to a broader audience, by having a female protagonist. I love Amber. I’m sorry for everything we’re about to do to her.
How does ethnicity play a role in the story?
The role of ethnicity in The Endling is primarily subtextual in this first story, I would say. This is a story about human evolution, and ethnicity is a function of evolution. So while there are threads that we could pick up for explicit stories in the future, for this first story I mostly just hoped that having multiple characters of different ethnic backgrounds in a story dealing with evolution would help trigger some subconscious thought on how humans might evolve in the future.
Was the story originally formed with Thrillbent in mind?
Mark originally wanted me to do another series I’m hoping to start pitching around, but that one’s considerably longer, so I wasn’t sure about doing it at Thrillbent, which hadn’t even launched yet. So I pitched him The Endling, which I had the basic idea for before I even knew about Thrillbent. He liked the idea but obviously wanted to see some scripts. So the first scripts were done with Thrillbent in mind–which very much inspired me to exploit the unique potential of the “swipe” format as much as I could, given the horror/suspense elements that arise as The Endling progresses.
My story was fairly well mapped out in my head before I scripted it, but the actual writing of it did get me thinking about how many more things you can do–and someone will do!–with interactive storytelling formats like this.
How did you learn to write in the swipe format?
I think I’m still learning! Mark sent me some early samples of stories that had been done in that kind of format, as well as, I think, a script or two. I work in TV, so I’m pretty comfortable with various script formats that indicate on-screen motion. The real trick was coming up with a single format that would work not just for all the Thrillbent writers but also the Thrillbent production crew and, of course, the artists. Luckily, Cecilia and Jenn have not just been good sports about my learning curve on figuring this stuff out, they’ve executed some really cool, creepy, nail-biting sequences by turning the format to their advantage in the artwork.
Any favorite techniques you’ve discovered through writing The Endling?
Cecilia and Jenn give us such warm, human, identifiable characters that it loads the horror/suspense sequences with a lot of impact and I’ve found that the Thrillbent format allows us to do two things in a unique way… one is to drag things out in the GOOD way that good suspense does, because you have theoretically infinite real estate to execute a given sequence, you can attenuate it as much as you want and draw out every tiny beat before getting to the payoff. The other thing that I love is that the format makes the reader complicit in the unfolding of whatever disturbing/unsettling sequence is under way. They’re the ones making it happen, determining the pace of it.
How deep into the story are we at this point?
We’re roughly midway through. That said, the way it ends definitely opens the door for future stories.
How has the story surprised you?
There is one twist that came to me about halfway through that required me to go back and revise a few things, but I can’t really talk about it because it doesn’t get revealed until later. I will say I did not expect to be as moved as I was when I first saw Cecilia’s character designs–and, of course, the depictions of those characters in the story itself. We had talked, of course, about what they should look like–and I had written a couple of Batman stories for DC online–but I hadn’t realized how powerful an experience it is to have an artist bring to life characters you created. Amber, Zavi, Cailtlyn, Rafe…they all lived in my head before Cecilia drew them, but now I can’t see them any other way and their faces to me are more real to me now than those of some ACTUAL people I know!
Does Cecilia draw digitally?
I’m pretty sure Cecilia works old school all the way… although because we’re using Thrillbent’s swiping technique, at some point I’m pretty sure she’s using Photoshop so as readers go from screen to screen she can make those teeny, tiny changes that end up freaking or grossing our readers out.
What were the biggest learning curves with The Endling?
Honestly, I think the biggest learning curve we all had–but especially me–was in underestimating how long it takes to execute some of these swipes. If you think about doing this on a weekly pace… ten Thrillbent screens roughly amount to five print comic book pages. But as anyone who reads The Endling will notice, we are giving you a LOT more than that, which meant a lot more work than the print equivalent would have.
Can you tease what’s coming next?
Well, for folks who haven’t read us yet, I strongly advise starting at the beginning For those who were reading along before our break and want a quick refresher, we did a neat little piece here But for those who are all caught up, I’ll just say we have a villain lying in wait who freaked me out just writing about him.
How did you break into comics?
I’m not sure I have yet! I used to be a reporter at a Brooklyn newspaper. One day I told our editorial cartoonist about an idea I had for a Creeper story. He dug it and actually painted five pages worth, which were amazing. He then asked me to help him out on his own idea, which I did, and he actually got two issues published. On the strength of the ashcan we made of the first issue, he got discovered by Jim Shooter and went on to become JG Jones…which has worked out pretty well for him! Fast forward many years later, he liked a Batman idea I had, which became the story “All of the Above” that we did for Legends of the Dark Knight. My editor there, Ben Abernathy, a great guy, liked it enough that I got to do another one for them. JG hooked me up with Mark Waid regarding that other series I mentioned I want to do, and that led to The Endling.
I’d say a story for Legends of the Dark Knight counts as breaking in!
I did two for them, yeah, but then Ben left for Madefire and I think two short stories probably just aren’t enough to get the world beating down my door. With any luck, enough people will enjoy The Endling that I’ll get additional opportunities down the road. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to do anything in comics at all!
Has your work for Thrillbent opened any doors?
Not yet, but the story hasn’t finished yet. For various reasons, we did no promotion to speak of when The Endling launched. Now that we’re half way through and promoting it, and especially once people get to see how the entire thing plays out… with luck that’ll let me pitch either that other series I mentioned or maybe additional stories in the Endling world. We shall see!
Do you want to do comics full time?
I can’t think of anything I would enjoy more. I’ve been so lucky in just the little amount of comics writing I’ve done to work with artists like JG Jones, Cecilia Latella, Paul Mounts and Jenn Manley Lee. Not to mention Ben Abernathy, Mark Waid, Troy Peteri… And, you know what? Everyone’s just been a pure joy to work with–totally committed to the craft and the story but totally friendly as well and somehow able to navigate the tensions that arise between those two. I’m very lucky to have been able to do a lot of work I’m very proud of in TV–I’ve worked on Up w/ Chris Hayes, Countdown w/ Keith Olbermann, Anderson Cooper 360, The Daily Show w/ Jon Stewart and more–and TV/journalism is really where my career has been. But if someone thought I should be writing enough comics a year to make a living at it, yeah, I’d go for that!
What’s inspiring you? Whether it be fiction, nonfiction, real life, whatever?
In terms of comics, writers like Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis and Alan Moore have inspired me… Ennis especially when it comes to building characters that live and breathe. I’ve tried to learn a lot about writing from Elmore Leonard. The art still coming in for The Endling continues to inspire me; Cecilia and Jenn are about ten issues ahead at this point, and every issue there’s at least one moment that just grabs me and pulls me in. It’s really humbling to have all of that craft and skill and inspiration dedicated to something you wrote, so that inspires me. Ultimately, in the broadest sense, I think I’m inspired in my comics writing by the same thing that inspires me in my TV work–the desire to matter, to change something, to surprise people, to provoke thought, to challenge expectations. A lot of the shows I’ve done have formed really strong connections with our viewers so it’s been an amazing experience to have readers connect just as strongly with The Endling, too… at least, the few who’ve discovered it so far!