The SymbiotesA column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Egg Embry
Story by Davis R. Vaughn
Computer Art by George Lippert
Published by Drive Comics
There aren’t that many comics with computer-generated art… yet. But among those that are making a real go of it is Davis R. Vaughn and George Lippert’s The Symbiotes! This comic book is outstanding!
I happened upon The Symbiotes #1’s Matrix-esque cover on the shelf of my comic shop when it first hit a month or two back, picked it up and thumbed through it. The computer-generated art struck me immediately with its captivating depictions of Davis and George’s universe! So, on the strength of the art and the hefty page count (48 pages of story), they got my money. I got it home but was unsure what to expect… I’d never heard of the concept, the creators, or the company before; however, what I got was an incredible sci-fi chronicle done with topnotch art and a well-executed story! Forty-Eight pages worth of perfectly carried out adventure for $2.95, I knew I was getting the rest of this series.
Then, at Wizard World Chicago, I ran into the creators at the Drive Comics Booth and had the opportunity to talk with them at length. They showed my girlfriend and artist, Jessi Nelson, and I a LOT of the next issue. They even did some The Symbiotes CGI animation on the spot. These guys are just genuinely nice and monstrously talented! Totally humble and totally devoted to what they are doing.
With The Symbiotes, Drive Comics is producing an epic well worth the money! And at Wizard World Chicago I had the opportunity to set up an interview with Davis, George, and art assistant Matt Metzker to discuss how this project came about and where it is going!
Egg: First off, what’s the cold-sell/pitch for The Symbiotes?
Davis Vaughn: Because the science fiction elements are what you see first, people keep calling it a sci-fi book, which, yeah, it is, but really the whole thing started off as a superhero premise and to us, it’s still a superhero book. The sci-fi was necessary to make the superhero premise work, and we’ve really enjoyed that aspect of it as well, so we don’t dislike the label sci-fi, we just want to make sure people know its more than that. The premise isn’t given away until issue 4, but there’s strong hints in the first three issues and once you get it, you’ll see why we needed the science fiction to make it work.
The other way to answer your question (the answer you were probably looking for) is that it is about Khalid, an officer in what is known as the Human Empire, who can’t rise in the ranks of the military for fear that it will be discovered that he has some non-human blood in his ancestry. When he is sent to investigate a destroyed power plant he runs into super powered rebels against the Human Empire known as The Symbiotes. Saying more would give away things that are better read.
Egg: Ok. Now, introduce yourselves and give us the brief job description on what you do with the book.
George Lippert: I’m George Lippert. I am the creative director and chief artist.
Davis Vaughn: I’m Davis R. Vaughn. I came up with the premise, the characters, the story and so on. I write the scripts, do stick figure storyboards, and give the thumbs up or down when George shows me concept sketches. I also have the fun tasks of doing the business, taxes, accounting and so on for Drive Comics, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear details on that.
Egg: Why does The Symbiotes stand out when compared to other works of science fiction?
George: It challenges a lot of the traditional interpretations of the way science fiction and super powers works; it takes the concepts back down to the foundation and rebuilds them with a stronger basis in physics and science, which surprises the uninitiated with a far more believable feel and allows the traditional fan a fresh look at some familiar, older concepts that otherwise tend to be taken for granted.
Davis: Taking this question from the angle of a sci-fi fan I would say two things: one, it’s interlaced with a superhero story, and two, our approach to the science is kind of unique. I make the science absolutely real when possible (even going so far as to consult members of NASA about the way a ship would revolve around a neutron star… oops, don’t want to give away too much!), but when it’s not possible to be completely real I just skip it--I have no interest in the Star Trek “insert-techno-babble-here” style of sci-fi writing.
Egg: As “novices” (and I use that term lightly because your book reads really well) why go with sci-fi? And why come out of the gate with a plan to do nearly 400 pages of story over 8 issues with a dozen or so characters spread across as many planets?
George: Because we are gluttons for punishment. And I don’t think of the book primarily as sci-fi: I think of it as a classic story of rebellion against oppression, of man finding his dragon to slay, a story of the complicated gradations of good vs. evil that happens to take place, incidentally almost, in the distant future.
Davis: Honestly? Lack of foresight. (laughs) I am a producer, accountant, business manager… I am all these random things that I have little or no interest in being just so I can write and have my writing published in a visual medium. But when the whole thing started, I had no experience in any of those. So I just said, “Okay, this guy with sick CGI skills has agreed to work with me… what’s the absolute coolest idea I have?” and The Symbiotes was it. If I had experience as a producer I would have said to myself, “Whoa there… do you know how many models this will require and how much time and money this will cost?” The writer got carried away and by the time my producer brain was up to speed it was too late. But I have to admit… seeing how good the book looks and the great response we are getting, I’m having a hard time thinking of it as a mistake.
Egg: Why 48 pages per issue for $2.95? That’s nearly 400 pages of work for very little money.
Davis: We don’t have a big marketing budget, so we’re heavily reliant on word-of-mouth to make our book popular. I wanted to give people every reason in the world to think of our book as different and special. The size was one way of doing that.
Egg: And not to pry, but you’re using nice paper and printing a LOT of pages, with what Diamond, FM International, and Cold Cuts gives you of the $2.95, are you clearing the costs of printing?
Davis: We’ve gotten good orders through Diamond, and we print a little over those orders to sell at conventions and such, so yeah we’re just barely clearing our printing costs.
Egg: Have you done any other comic work?
Davis: No, but I have a lot of completed scripts, and people have been kind enough to introduce me to a handful of really talented artists, so there is a lot of stuff in the pipeline that you’ll see in 2005.
George: As an artist, I have dabbled in comics since I was three years old (according to my Mom), developing concepts and characters and storylines. I haven't published anything apart from The Symbiotes, mainly because I couldn't scrape up the time and inspiration to polish anything off while working on the unavoidable work required to get by as an artist. So the answer is yes and no. But the unpublished stuff looks damn good!
Egg: Considering this is Drive Comics’ first publication and you’re still on the first issue, how is it going? Has the book sold as well as you expected? What did you do to prepare the retailers for the coming of The Symbiotes #1?
Davis: It’s going well. Being new to the industry I had dreams of selling 10,000 books, and of course that was never going to happen. But when I chat with other indy comic guys and tell them our orders through Diamond and how many we sell at conventions, they seem to think the numbers are really good, so I guess they are. Originally, I had printed a poster that was supposed to go out in Previews to every single shop, but I thought the print job was bad so I pitched them. Friends said I was being too critical, but I want to establish Drive Comics as a company that people can expect quality from and I didn’t want a bad print job to be the world’s first impression of us. I had another printer do a foldout mini-comic that went in Previews, and I think that helped sell it.
Egg: Walk me through the production of the comic? Who does what behind the scenes?
George: The short answer is that Davis provides scripts and basic storyboards, which I interpret into concept sketches, then models, props, costumes, characters, sets, etc. in 3D. Finally, after posing, lighting, texturing, and camera placement in Maya (along with effects, cloth simulation, planetary environments and alien design in a multitude of external applications and plug-ins) the final renders are produced, usually with anywhere from 10 to 30 layers of compositing, which are stitched together in good old Photoshop.
Egg: What kind of production schedule are you working around? How often is The Symbiotes scheduled to be released?
Davis: We were doing one every three months, but we think we’re going to be able to bump that up to two months soon.
Egg: Each of you brings something exceptional to the book. And each set of characters has a unique feel to them and their race. How do you achieve that without resorting to the Star Trek forehead-of-the-week routine?
George: Did we achieve that!? Thank the gods! (grin) Seriously, it has been a constant struggle as an artist, since a fairly essential premise of the book involves pretty strictly humanoid aliens. I have really had to try to find a balance between wanting, as a designer, to create seven armed, compound eyed slug people and making sure that the aliens are still likeable, relatable, and essentially compatible with their human counterparts.
Davis: We start each species by creating conditions: what is their planet like, what is their society like? You can do simple things like say that this species has no hair anywhere on their body--not even eyebrows. Or, you can do more abstract things that people pick up on subconsciously. I figured that people from planets occupied by the Human Empire all speak English, but they would have different slang and speech patterns just like a person from Texas speaks differently than someone from England. So I have one member of The Symbiotes for whom I’ve made a whole list of speech pattern rules: pronouns are assumed to be first person and therefore omitted as unnecessary unless speaking in second or third person. Things such as that.
Egg: What is your favorite aspect of the comic? Favorite character?
Davis: My favorite aspect of the comic is the central premise. I promise I’ll do another interview and talk all about it after issue 4 comes out, but I just can’t give it away until then. As I said, there are plenty of hints in the first 3 issues and when it is revealed, you will see that it sets up this universe to use superhero powers in a way that is radically different than anyone has ever done them before.
Favorite character? Probably Trayred Vul. He’s the Han Solo / Wolverine kind of rebel with a good heart, that’s always everyone’s favorite isn’t it? Plus, his superpower (also to be fully revealed later) is one that I made up at the age of 14, and I’m proud that in a genre as thoroughly explored as superheroes that I created a power that is truly unique.
George: Visually, Raja Deimos (appearing in issue two for the first time) appeals to me because of his outright, undisguised malevolence, and all the cool cyber gizmos and armor chunks that he is encrusted with. In the same way, the Raiders really appeal to me as visual characters, because of the challenge I faced in making them really invincible looking, but still lithe and quick, lethally athletic, rather than just two-ton armored mech wanna-bes, which was my original design.
Egg: How has the story and artwork evolved from the initial concept to now?
Davis: I don’t think the story has evolved! I had all eight issues of this limited series finished a year ago, and it’s what I had in my brain to begin with.
George: Visually, things come together more quickly because the deeper we get into this world we created, the better we understand it. There’s not as much need for us to discuss concepts because there’s enough of a foundation now.
Egg: What other projects does Drive Comics have in the offing? And do any of ya’ll have any side-projects in the works?
Davis: Like I said, I’m talking to a few really talented artists and we’re going to be putting out stuff ranging from a supernatural thriller to lighthearted children’s superhero to a guns blazing hit man script.
George: Always side projects in the works.
Egg: At Wizard World Chicago you were working on some The Symbiotes animation. Do you want to see this story done as a feature-length movie after the mini-series? Something live-action or more Pixar?
Davis: If there’s one thing that the movie of Final Fantasy proved (at least to those who control the money in Hollywood) it’s that you can’t sell animation of any form to adults no matter how good it is. I would love for this to be a CGI feature, but it will never happen. We’ve got an offer from an intellectual property company to have The Symbiotes developed for a live action movie, but our lawyers and their lawyers have yet to come to an agreement.
George: Ideally, I, as the artist, believe it would be best done in the same vein as "Sky Captain" with live actors alongside CG effects and environments.
Egg: What can readers expect in The Symbiotes #2?
Davis: There will be some cool new visuals; you get to see the Raiders in their battle armor and let me tell you, when George showed me that first image I jumped out of my chair I was so amazed by it. Story wise things will settle in a bit--we won’t be introducing new characters and plots so much as progressing and weaving together the ones we’ve already got.
Egg: Any closing thoughts?
Davis: Naw, I’ve rambled on enough. Oh… but anyone reading this should know that not every store orders every independent comic so if you want our books, please ask your local comic shop owner to order them through Diamond. You can still get the back issues, too.
Egg: Davis, George, I just want to thank you for sharing all these thoughts!
For more on Davis R. Vaughn and George Lippert’s The Symbiotes, try Drive Comics or The Symbiotes.
For more on Egg Embry, try www.KamenComic.com, DEAD@17: Rough Cut #1, MORE FUND COMICS #1 or www.ArcanaStudio.com.