Monty Nero: "6 months to live – what're you gonna do?"A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks
Monty Nero and Mike Dowling's Death Sentence has one of the best hooks I've ever heard for a comic: what if you caught an STD that you know will kill you, but which gives you amazing powers while you are alive. The first volume of this series hits the stands on Wednesday, which made this a good time to talk to Monty about the series and future plans.
CB: The idea of STDs that give people superpowers and then kill them is powerful; where did that concept grow from?
Nero: I had the idea on a long drive home. I'd been talking to people about how the comics I was reading didn't seem to reflect the world around us: the language; the tone - the real interests we all share. On the way back I realised that I had to put my money where my mouth was. My wife was three months pregnant at the time and everyone was telling me our personal lives would be over in six months when the baby came. That turned out to be nonsense, but it really felt like we only had six months to do something recklessly creative.
And that's what Death Sentence is about: "6 months to live – what're you gonna do?" In my case I wanted to make a comic. In Verity's case she wants to create great art. Weasel needs to record an album that doesn't suck before he dies, and Monty just wants to do things bigger, better and bolder.
So you can read it on two levels - an exciting action romp or an investigation into life, creativity, and what the point of it all is. And the STD aspect throws up obstacles, conflicts – and some interesting dramatic choices: "What would you give up to be successful and talented? Would you catch or pass on the virus deliberately?" that kind of thing.
CB: There are some scenes in this book that are truly shocking. Did you approach them mainly to shock or is there a deeper motive behind them?
Nero: Nothing's designed to shock. I don't think in those terms at all. You just tell the best story in the most effective way possible, and sometimes that calls for subtlety and pulling the camera away, and sometimes you leave it running and show something starkly.
There's not much violence in the comic but when there is we refuse to do it glibly, without consequence - or to show it without making a deeper point at the same time. Some people might find sex, drinking, creativity, art and comedy shocking too - but you'd wonder why. It's what adults do. So why not have a comic that reflects that instead of some sanitised ideal?
CB: Without spoiling this book too much, a terrible fate hits London in Death Sentence. It feels like the stakes for a super-hero battle are raised to a huge level in this book. Why did you go so big? And how do you top this with future books?
Nero: It escalates credibly, starting with very intimate confrontations and growing incrementally. Characters learn about themselves under pressure, facing escalating spiritual and physical challenges. The stakes are raised and Verity and Weasel discover intriguing new qualities within themselves. The second volume continues from the moment the first book ends, and the emotional journey is even more powerful given what just happened in Book One. And it goes in some surprising new directions too.
CB: Were you influenced at all by comics that came before? Obviously the specter of Alan Moore hangs over this plot a bit.
Nero: We did get favourably compared to Watchmen, which was a lovely surprise. There is no finer praise, and we are clearly not worthy. I guess everyone's influenced by the media and experiences in their life to some extent, but I just sat down and wrote something personal that meant something to me. I was thinking about the world around me, and how to capture that in an interesting way.
CB: If ordinary people did get super-powers, do you think they'd take this approach rather than a more "peace, love and happiness" approach?
Nero: I think people react in all kinds of different ways, just like Verity, Monty, and Weasel do. We'll see different responses in later volumes - pacifism and apathy for instance. You can put this premise into any story, so there's loads of interesting scenarios still to explore.
CB: Why is there a character named after you? Do you secretly have super powers?
Nero: Monty just seemed to fit the character. It has a kind of dandy, decadent feel - but he's not me at all. I'd love to be able to fly, but sadly those powers haven't kicked in yet. It's just a matter of believing - so I'm still hopeful.
CB: This comic seems to me to be very British in its approach to heroism. Do you see it as very British? If so, do you think the attitude of 2000 AD is part of the reason why?
Nero: I grew up in Britain so inevitably yes, 2000 AD has a huge influence on almost all British creators, on how to tell a story succinctly, which is partly why you get so many great creators from these shores. But 2000 AD wasn't in my mind when I wrote this. Mike and I just wanted to do our own thing.
CB: How has having a small baby in the house affected your approach to this book and other series?
Nero: The prospect of becoming a parent instigated the book. And once my daughter was born I found being a Dad hugely inspiring and exciting. It's been a fantastically happy time. A lot of the comic was written with her playing in the background, or with the theme tune to her favourite TV shows blaring away, or with me getting up and going out with her to the park for a few hours mid-scene or something. If you bear that in mind when you read it a lot of things take on extra resonance.
CB: What do you think of the reception to this book so far?
Nero: I'm delighted and surprised by how many people liked it. It's been a real bonus.
CB: I understand you started plotting a sequel. Is that still in the plans?
Nero: The art's well underway and book 2 and it'll be out soon. I'm writing scripts for book 3 too.
CB: How has it been different working on your Amazing X-Men project?
Nero: It was hugely enjoyable. It's an honour to take on such beloved characters and try and write them with respect and authenticity. All the Marvel editors I've dealt with have been very switched on to new comics, very knowledgeable. With Death Sentence it's more me working on my own, doing whatever I want with the script, which is my choice, so it's a nice change of atmosphere at Marvel. The two different approaches complement each other well.
CB: I see you do IP work with characters; how did that shape your approach to this book and did you design it to have "legs" for film and such?
Nero: No, I just wanted to create something personal that made me happy. I love comics, floppy comics you can hold in your hands. Creating our own comic was the dream, and I'm ecstatic we achieved it.
CB: You wrote something like 17,000 words in the back of the Death Sentence floppies on how to write comics. Why should we listen to you?
Nero: I'm always fascinated when creators share inside info on the making of a comic or film that they love. I learnt absolutely loads about publishing comics in a short space of time making Death Sentence, but I'm forgetful so I wanted to write it all down before the knowledge seeped away. The single issues all have five or six pages about scripting, character design, dialogue, finding an artist, finding a publisher, distribution, printing, and all the business factors regarding contracts, distribution and money.
It's like a blueprint on how I got from A to B, over the last few years. So the next time I'm creating a new comic I can go back and read it, and learn from what worked and what didn't. And anyone else with an interest in comics can do that too - it's all there on Comixology or in the comic shop.