With the current moment filled with so much uncertainty and dread, it’s always an interesting head trip to consider the counterfactual: what if this event or that event happened instead? Certainly, scholars of history consider the options and political pundits lament about the policies that have might have been enacted, but most essential takes on alternative history have always leaped from the pages of science fiction and fantasy. Of course, the genre itself is nothing new, but it is always exciting to see new takes on history, especially history that is not dissected as much in the popular culture.
Cue up THE JEKYLL ISLAND CHRONICLES series from Top Shelf/IDW. A pastiche of pulp, punk, and wild imagination, Jekyll Island revels in wild conspiracy and rip-roaring adventure. Set in the interregnum between the World Wars (but leaning closer to the end of the First), the story explores the intersection and consequence of power, particularly in an age where political disagreement often meant societal upheaval.
Uniquely, the series is the product not of veterans of the industry, but the Lost Mountain Mechanicals, who are described as “three working grown-ups, all with families and all with careers, who just decided to do something different.” These three self-described “grown-ups”–Ed Crowell, Jack Lowe, and Steve Nedvidek–took their idea and, with the help of Kickstarter, launched their dream. I had the opportunity to interview Nedvidek recently about the Jekyll Island Chronicles. We chatted about where the idea for the books came from, the appeal of the various punks (diesel and steam, respectively!), and the opportunities that crowdfunding has for creators.
AJ FROST: Hi Steve. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat. I suppose I want to start off by asking about where your fascination with alternative history comes from. Why is counterfactual history such a ripe topic for storytellers? And how does the medium of comics allow writers and artists to stretch the limits of the genre?
STEVE NEDVIDEK: I think that really good storytelling starts with the basis of truth. It should all have a grain of human truth, so that it can connect with the reader, but I like when something can tie back to real life events. I find it makes me curious and I want to do further digging. Was this ALL true? Was some of it true? How much? Etc. etc. We hope that the alternate history in The Jekyll Island Chronicles helps people to ask those kinds of questions. We discovered SO MUCH historical fact as we researched for this series—we were, and are, still blown away by it! In today’s world, learning what is true and what is not has never been more important. We live in a world that traffics in half-truths and even boldface lies. These days, it is important for the reader to understand it is their responsibility is to discover what is true. Our book is actually being taught in schools, both from a historical standpoint, but also to help students learn to dig for themselves into the “alt” part of alt history.
FROST: As a writer, what was it about the internecine period between World War I and World War II that inspires you as a writer? Are you an avid reader of this history? What was the spark that pushed you towards using this particular moment—almost a century ago now—as the sandbox on which to build this narrative?
NEDVIDEK: All three of us creators had family ties to grandparents that were either in WWI or connected to it. So, we all had an interest from that perspective. But we also saw this time as being such an exciting, and fragile, period of history. The world had changed. Countries were formed, swallowed up, or ceased to exist. Technology was going crazy. People were building new things. And there were many people who were suffering. We don’t learn a lot about this time in school, and we thought it was worth exploring. We all are avid readers of history, and we all have our particular tastes, but this era contained the parents that gave birth to “The Greatest Generation”. We thought it was fertile ground for a story.
FROST: Relatedly, The Jekyll Island Chronicles takes place in the years immediately after the First World War. The state of the world at the time was much in flux. What drew you to this historical time period?
NEDVIDEK: For me personally, I had an experience in college that drew me to this timeframe. I was able to be a part of a satirical musical from Joan Littlewood called “Oh, What A Lovely War!” It was all about the Great War, how it came to be, and the human implications within it. It really shook me. It changed my perspective, so I have since that time been drawn to that world. In light of the fact that we just celebrated the 100h anniversary of the end of the war, I was actually surprised more theatre companies hadn’t picked up producing that powerful piece.
FROST: Not to get too political, but what does it say that some of the most prominent characters—President Woodrow Wilson, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Vanderbilt, etc.—are oligarchs? Surely, their real-life counterparts weren’t so into fighting world conspiracies of evil. Why choose these characters?
NEDVIDEK: These actually aren’t the main characters in our story. We purposely put these characters in the second and third circle of importance. They have significant influence in this world, to be sure, but our main characters are actually the WWI veterans that become our high tech action heroes. The other thing to remember is that Jekyll Island is a real place. 1/6 of the world’s wealth lived there during part of the year. That fact allowed us to create an interesting place for the story to unfold and those men were simply a part of that historical world. And don’t forget that Carnegie gave away more than $300 million in his lifetime, including building a network of libraries all across the country. His goal was to give all his wealth away before he died–and we liked that about him. If any character is more of a main character, it is him.
This story takes place, as do most stories, in a political world. The politics of that time, especially as the story progresses, cause the world to splinter again. But we want the story to actually speak to the human side of things, not the political side of things. So we tend not to focus so much on that part.
FROST: Setting aside non-fiction sources which provided some of the basic framework for the setting, what comics did you turn to for inspiration while writing your books?
NEDVIDEK: We all grew up reading comics as kids–Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Batman. Our writing room has a whole carousel of them! I would say, in general, those comics serve as a foundation to our work. Adventure books did the same thing. We all grew up reading that stuff. We all love film and TV, too. If you look closely in our books, you will see many Easter Eggs to some of the things we love and we pay homage to–everything from Dr. Who to An American Werewolf in London. Oh, and Joe Alves, the guy who built the shark for Jaws, makes a cameo. All those great fictional/cultural influences pop up from time to time.
FROST: Besides being an alternative historical piece of fiction, the Jekyll Island Chronicles is heavily inspired by a steampunk aesthetic. In theory, it feels that this combination doesn’t work. What is it about this retro-future look that fascinates so many people?
NEDVIDEK: We have found out that there are a LOT of different types of punk if you want to get technical about it. That was part of what we are constantly learning, as we meet different people who punk differently. Steampunk, dieselpunk, cyberpunk, etc. Steampunk is the word that is most commonly used, and sometimes describes more than its actual time period. Our story is more dieselpunk that anything. We take the technology of the time (Tesla, Ford, Steinmetz for example) and stretch it out to what might have been possible if it didn’t have to be commercialized. For example, we asked a curious question like “What would Henry Ford’s personal car have been like?” Things like bulletproof glass and air conditioning hadn’t been commercialized yet, but science was making them possible. How might Ford have used that? How might Carnegie have used steel if he didn’t have to commercial the effort? As a result, the dieselpunk vibe works very well for our timeframe. We get to stretch the technology beyond the capabilities of the time.
The funny thing about it is when we take our Cosplay characters around Comic Con, we don’t get a lot of people who parse the punk. They simply love the fact that we are unique and that they look super cool. There is nothing quite like what we are doing, that’s for sure.
FROST: The Jekyll Island Chronicles was launched courtesy of a Kickstarter campaign. What do you see as the most promising and more detrimental effects of crowdfunding within the field of comics?
NEDVIDEK: Most promising: You get people involved and you get them excited early about your project. You build an audience of like-minded people who care about what you are doing. This gives you something to talk about and gives you a success story.
Most detrimental: If you do a Kickstarter and set a goal and don’t reach it, you don’t get anything. Other crowdfunded options are different, but that’s how KS worked. Sending out all the stuff you promised is time-consuming and costly–so you’d better work postage, production costs, and labor costs into your equation for those that give at certain levels. The sheer volume of content that’s out there can also hurt you. You have to be different, and it doesn’t hurt if you already have people on your side who want to see you succeed.
FROST: What is next for you?
NEDVIDEK: We are diligently working on Book 3. We have a new illustrator (Prentis Rollins) for the series; he comes with a many year DC/Marvel pedigree, and we are SUPER excited about that. We have started working on pages already, so it is underway. We will also be doing another Kickstarter campaign to finish the trilogy–look for that and join in on the fun if you’d like!
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat! I really appreciate it!
NEDVIDEK: Truly appreciate the opportunity!