About a month ago Nate Simpson’s NONPLAYER hit stands after years of anticipation and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Reviews were solid. Fans were excited. Retailers sold out.
So did Image.
It was a big day for Nate, but before everything went down we spoke in the wee hours of the morning about the day that was to come. Our friends at iFanboy hosted us.
Image reprinted the issue, in-stores today, so I thought it would be timely to reprint the interview.
A little over two years ago video game designer Nate Simpson decided to put his lucrative career on an indefinite hold to focus on a dream: creating his comic book, NONPLAYER.
Nate’s been getting a lot of attention in the time since. It began with Warren Ellis featuring NONPLAYER's work blog, Project Waldo, and continued with comics juggernauts including Moebius, Frank Quitely and Geof Darrow all praising the final book.
To say Nate’s life has faced a massive transition is an immense understatement.
With the subsequent buzz once pages went public, those comic book gods were joined by seemingly every fan, retailer and news outlet out there. NONPLAYER's rich and diverse visuals of fantasy worlds, futuristic cities and in-between realities mesmerized nearly all who's seen them. Only a few story details have leaked out. All anyone knows is it centers around a tamale delivery girl named Dana who begins to notice the nonplayable denizens of her favorite MMORPG start acting… weird.
All eyes are on Nate.
At first I thought I might be biased given how Nate’s become a good friend, but the more I see of his work and the more I hear unbiased reactions, the more I’m convinced he will someday become a true legend of the medium. The day will come when NONPLAYER is spoken about in the same breath as Moebius’ AIRTIGHT GARAGE, Quitely’s FLEX MENTALLO and Darrow’sHARD BOILED.
However, that’s the future.
This is now.
We spoke very late on the night of Tuesday, April 5th 2011, mere hours before NONPLAYER would be unleashed on the collective comicdom.
Joe Keatinge: This very moment, right now, is a huge deal for you. There’s only hours before your comics career really starts. It’s a moment in time, which will exist once for you and tomorrow, everything changes.
Nate Simpson: My assumption is I’m really in for a very short period of excitement, followed by a return to relative normalcy, whether it’s a month or two from now or three months from now and the new car smell wears off. I get the impression people are going to move on to new comics and I’ll be just another guy, but you’re right, this short period of time is very similar to how I felt to Christmas as a kid.
JK: Except your life changes.
NS: That’s the interesting thing. The changes are mostly perceived through the lens of the Internet. My day-to-day life won’t change - or hasn’t yet - I certainly haven’t seen a lot of money or anything like that. Probably the shocking moment where it wasn’t just things said to me to a screen was the panel at WonderCon. That was THE shock moment where I realized I didn’t fully understand what was really going on and it was bigger than I expected.
JK: Why’s that?
NS: The whole process of walking into the panel hall with the Witchdoctor creators. We walked in to a giant hall completely filled with people then naturally assumed we were in the wrong room, and looked at the door again to confirm it was actually the right hall. So we walked back inside and were in front of more than 200-250 people, which is a robust amount of people for someone who hasn’t done a panel before. Then I’m up on the dais, drinking the water, trying not to freak out when I found out Sirius XM was recording it. It was unexpectedly ‘game time.’ I had never been in front of a group of people that large outside my college graduation.
So, they were introducing our comics and when they got to mine there was this cheer that came up from the audience. There was this feeling of it not feeling real. It felt like a dream. Literally so, like you could pinch me and I’d wake up. It went from a number on a screen - whether it was a number of followers or comments, something abstract - to look at all these living, breathing flesh & blood humans who came to hear about NONPLAYER. It was very strange.
JK: The first time I remember seeing Project Waldo - the NONPLAYER work blog - was from a Warren Ellis link. That was pretty early on, right?
NS: Yeah. The Warren Ellis link happened a link a day or so after it went up on Brandon Graham’s website, but yeah, after it went up on Ellis’ site I first heard the click of the roller coaster going up the hill.
JK: Was that the first time the attention felt ‘real’ or was it just too bizarre?
NS: It all feels ‘real’, but maybe I’m playing at this real/unreal angle a little too much. I think it’s more about me through the Internet then experience in the real world.
Which… Oh my gosh, is kind of like my comic, but you know what I mean?
99% of working on the comic has been submitting pages to the Internet through my blog, getting approval on comics from the same blog which tells me to draw the comic better or seeing it written about on other blogs or reviews or discussion it with publishers… it was all through this keyboard.
Then I finally starting meeting people - like Brandon Graham, you. Yet Emerald City and WonderCon was when I really started to realize there were other people on the other end of those interactions.
JK: Was there anything in particular about Emerald City which jogged you of your perception of computer unreality?
NS: Meeting Geof Darrow was a big deal. (laughs) There were several other moments where people who I really respected and didn’t think would give me the time of day were talking to me, saying nice things about the work. I suppose the Frank Quitely moment you saw was a literal shock, as I didn’t realize who he was at first.
JK: How did the Quitely moment start off? I only saw you two talking halfway into your conversation.
NS: Ales Kot, an up-and-coming comics author, got a kick out of hunting down high profile creators he happened to know and would bring them over to the table. I later found out he tried to the same thing with Mike Mignola, but he wasn’t biting. Ales did bring Quitely over and intentionally brought him over to see how I’d react to Quitely as an anonymous individual. The set up worked very well; I was very surprised.
JK: What was Quitely saying at first?
NS: I’m sure I’ve mutated it in my memory, but the earliest thing I remember was him saying something complimentary about the posters and then going down a different road about different tools we use. I was telling him about IllustStudio and some of the cool function you could do, which he compared to MangaStudio. I just thought he was an enthusiast asking technical questions, but I started to sense the questions were the sort someone would be asking if they were a professional comic book artist.
Wasn’t it you who alerted me to his identity?
JK: I think I pointed out his name-tag was turned around.
NS: You did nudge me towards asking me who he was, the the moment of me just sort of staring. He was such a gentlemen too. I would like to hang out with Frank Quitely again sometime. He seemed like a fun guy.
JK: You mentioned at WonderCon there were four specific creators who really influenced you and you’ve now heard from three of them. Darrow was one of them, right? Moebius was another?
NS: Right. So, I’ve met Darrow and gave him a comic at WonderCon. Then William Stout was the second one and also met then gave him a comic at WonderCon. He invited me to stop by his Sunday figure drawing get together next time I’m in Los Angeles, which is awesome.
Moebius was through my French avatar, Joe Keatinge, and he got a copy of the comic through that meeting. The fourth person would be Arthur Rackum, whose been dead for forty years, so I could probably plant a copy of the comic at his grave.
JK: What was it about these four guys that influenced your work so heavily?
NS: They’re the four guys I’ve looked at the most. Between the four of them they comprised 90% of my art eyeballing hours as a kid. In order of from when I was youngest - I discovered William Stout first, through his book The New Dinosaurs. I had the book checked out for months until it literally fell apart from over-reading.
Moebius was the next guy - through the collection of Long Tomorrow & Other Stories. He was drawing real worlds like other people weren’t. He didn’t distinguishing between foregrounds and backgrounds. It was like he was seeing some other place - like he had access to another universe and transcribing, unlike anything I had ever seen before.
But then I did see it again in Darrow’s work on Hard Boiled. In Darrow’s case, he got me drawing crashing cars on my binders all day with thousands of little shards of glass and every single, tiny engine component exploding under the hood. He got me excited about detailed chaos.
Arthur Rackum snuck in from the side when I was in high school, especially in the way he drew trees and landscapes. The way his pages flowed had such an organic interaction between foreground and background, which is pretty rare.
JK: We’re living in a pretty exciting time where emerging creators were raised in an age when you could create your own stuff. When you look forward to your comics career, are you looking toward a future of creating your own stories? What do you want to do with comics?
NS: Can I ask you first? What are you going to do with comics?
JK: I just love the medium so damn much. It’s more like this weird instinctual thing. I don’t know how it started. I don’t know what my first comic was. Comics have just always been in my life. They always seemed like ‘the thing to do.’ Some people have the instinct to go running every day. I just have an instinct to work on comics, whether it’s editing, comics or whatever.
NS: It’s just Dharma.
JK: Yeah, right now. There’s no real science to it. In the long term, I’d like to take part in what I like so much about the medium. You can tell stories in the way you want more than any other way. I just really want to be part of that, whether it’s writing, editing or even cartooning something original and seeing what each has to offer. Sure, I’m also interested in working with someone like Marvel, DC or even a licensed property. I really just like playing with the medium. It doesn’t get more complicated than that.
NS: I think that’s a very beautiful thing. It’s pretty rare too. I don’t think most people know what they want to the degree you do. Maybe it’s why you seem like such a happy person.
NS: Seriously. You’re doing what you’re passionate about. A lot of people don’t have passion about anything. It’s very exciting. I’m kind of jealous.
JK: I don’t see why you should be. I know you left comics for a little bit when you went over to video games in 1993, but to undertake something like NONPLAYER, which is going to be years in the making, you have to have that kind of passion. You’re working on something so wholly and completely for so long.
NS: I don’t think this is going to endear me to too many comic book aficionados, but I don’t have a particular preference for any particular medium. The thing I’m most interested in, if we’re talking in Moebius terms, is seeing that other universe and translating. The fun part is glimpsing that other side. That sounds super cheesy, but it’s what it feels like.
The moment where you can see it in your head and get excited about sharing it, whether it’s with your friends or wife or your family or whoever. How you show it to them is a choice you can make based off what medium is most appropriate to the thing you’re trying to show.
The nice thing about comics is how immediate it is. The turnaround time between when something pops up in my imagination and when I can turn it into something that’s viewable by someone other than me, is relatively short compared to, I don’t know, an animated film where it has to be mediated by a bunch of animators and costs a bunch of money and takes a bunch time.
To me, comics is a tool more than an end in of itself. Some people are formalists and love how panels look on a page and love the little idiosyncrasies of the medium. For me, a lot of those things are hindrances. Laying out a page is a frustrating experience. I think most comics people experience that.
Do you get that, working on a page?
JK: Most of the stuff I cartoon ends up looking like an 80-year old man did it. My layouts are usually very basic, in the style of old newspaper strips. Even still, I’m surprised to hear NONPLAYER's layouts can be such a struggle. The characters seem to move in a very natural way, one which is very specific to comics.
To explain, I see a lot of people who does great work, but they stylistically rely on other mediums to dictate how they lay out a page, whereas NONPLAYER reads like it was specifically done with comics in mind.
NS: It’s very much a comic. I always work in the medium I’ve chosen. Don’t get me wrong, comics have aspects which are just not available in any other medium. Mainly you have an unlimited budget, can use any characters you want and any settings you want to have. There are no bosses telling you what you can or can’t do. It’s ultimate freedom for an artist. There’s no more elaborate world-building exercise accessible to a single visual artist. If you want to go any bigger than a comic, you need to start bringing in some collaborators.
If you are going to work within that medium, you do have to follow the rules. The human eye works in a certain way; a page needs to have a certain balance. Storytelling has certain requirements. You can’t skip necessary moments. I’ve definitely been looking at comics from a very young age and have internalized those certain rules. I also think I make a lot of mistakes, in terms of storytelling.
There are sequences I think I would lay out differently if I were to drawing them a second time. I think they’re ok; I think I get the story across. There aren’t any very confusing moments, which is when storytelling really fails. I think I’ve learned some things from the first issue I hope to use in the second.
JK: Like what?
NS: It’s very difficult for me to articulate, because I think it’s more aesthetic than rhetorical. There are some pacing issues, where some of my transitions are too abrupt because I’m trying to fit too much action into too few pages. If given another chance, I might approach it more like a Manga artist and allow a few more moments of stillness. More aspect-to-aspect transitions than action-to-action transitions. Just to give it more of a rhythm.
If the comic was a rock song, the middle eight pages would be a very rapid drum solo without any breaks or breathing in the middle. I feel the action sequence could be more impactful if there was some pause to give it that more rhythm.
I wish I had the guts to add in a few more pages. If I could have added more pages, it could have breathed nicely.
JK: At the same time a lot of artists, movie directors, authors, etc. say you’re never really done with a work. You always could add two more pages. Doesn’t it feel good to just let go?
NS: Yeah, there’s an interesting thing where you make a deal with yourself where you’re either going to make a fast comic or a high quality comic. There are many people who can do both, but in my case I only have those two choices. Once you make that decision to make it as high quality as you can it becomes a very slippery slope. You’ve already sunk a week or more into a page, so when do you stop? You can just get dragged down with the page, where you get so perfectionistic where 99% isn’t good enough. You’re trying to get as close to 100% as you can, but that last percent can take another week. I think what you said about the comic being a work in progress, never really being done with and there being a healthy time to move onto the next thing is a lesson I need to internalize, that I haven’t internalized yet. I’m not sure the positive, critical response toNONPLAYER will help me learn that lesson. I think there’s a danger I might go down that road further, so eager to avoid disappointing people with the second. I mighty try to spend a silly amount of time on each page. Hopefully the people around me will keep me on the straight and narrow.
JK: While you were interested in comics as a kid, you dropped out before the early Image era. So, I imagine you didn’t really have a lot of childhood-rooted enthusiasm to work with Image Comics. Considering you could have taken NONPLAYER to just about any publisher, why did you choose Image to be your home?
NS: The simplest answer is… you.
You reacted to the comic with a level of enthusiasm no one else did. You were a more aggressive advocate for the book in your company more than anyone else at any other company. There are certainly other reasons. Image has a very creator friendly contract structure. I didn’t want to spend this much time on something only to have someone else own it. I also believe in the long-term viability of NONPLAYER as a brand - that sounds horrible, but I do believe, someday, it will have value. Given that, Image seemed like the smart way to go.
I should also add Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee were my heroes in that last era of comic reading. I subscribed to bothAmazing Spider-Man and Uncanny X-Men during those two artist’s runs. I even got McFarlane’s signature on Spider-Man #1with the special silver cover. I drew screaming Jim Lee Wolverine heads all over my notebooks in school. I was aware they broke off and created Image so that played a role as well. Image has a pedigree.
JK: Not to get too “Inside Baseball,” but while Image helps out with marketing, retail relations and sales you single-handily went after retailers by creating your own aggressive poster-incentive sales program, even if it wasn’t intentional. How did you go about the campaign?
NS: One thing I started to learn about myself since I started doing this comic - and note this comic is the first creative thing I’ve ever done where it’s success or failure is a result of my action or inaction - and what I’ve learned is I’m a perfectionist. The amount of time and effort I’m willing to put into drawing the comic is immeasurably more than I put into, say, concept art for a video game. I didn’t even know I was a perfectionist until then. That extends through the entire process of bringing the comic into being; it’s not just the writing and drawing. Part of making a comic is making sure people have access to it.
I initially heard there were three or four very influential retailers, that if you contacted them you would be on Easy Street and other retailers would stock your book as well. I proceeded that point by creating a spreadsheet with about ten retailers on it. I contacted those ten, but I wasn’t sure who those four mythical retailers were. So ten turned into twenty, turned into fifty turned into one hundred.
I started asking around on Facebook and my blog about who their local and favorite retailers were, and from their building the contact list. It wasn’t just sending retailers a blanket e-mail. I made sure to personalize each one somewhat and offer to send a poster to put up in their store, to open up the lines of communication. I’m still not sure it was 100% successful, I think I only had about a 30% success rate, but that turns out to have been enough. It created enough heat a fire started and spread to the other retailers.
It would have been heartbreaking to put as much time into a comic as I did and only have it only sell a few hundred or a thousand copies come out, then fizzle. I committed so many resources it was probably one of those sunk cost issues where I had to commit to that last percent or I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.
JK: That’s kind of dramatic.
NS: (laughs) It’s so funny there are so many questions of perspective through this whole thing. That may be one of the biggest lessons in this whole experience. In the grand scheme of things, comics is not a huge medium. The number of people participating in it is relatively small. The number of people reading them is relatively small compared to both what comics have been in the past and almost any other pop culture medium. To me, all this time and effort and sweat I put into this comic feels like the entire world to me. Yet it’s one tiny, tiny, tiny part of a relatively small industry over a finite period of time which one will day be forgotten. So I keep oscillating between feeling like I’m doing something big and awesome then feeling like it’s a fairly little thing. I’m not sure which side I’m sticking with what.
JK: I’m gonna stick with ‘big and awesome.’
NS: Good. I think I need people to say that. That makes me feel good.
JK: I believe if working in editorial has taught me anything it’s being unbiased regardless if someone’s a friend or not, yet I have this huge feeling of something important having in comics through NONPLAYER tomorrow.
NS: How do you think it’s important?
JK: I think of the first moments when I saw Moebius or Darrow, I just knew they would be important. I can’t say there’s any science behind it, it’s just an instinct I get from men and women who produce work unlike anything else in comics. I’ve also never seen the comic shop buzz about a comic which hasn’t come out yet, on a scale so big. I have this anticipation of it being like Christmas, but for comics.
NS: This is going to sound like I’m fishing for a compliment, but I’m not. That said, I believe you when this is a somewhat unprecedented amount of buzz for something that hasn’t been released yet. So what I’m trying to figure out is A) what’s different about it and B) why hasn’t this been done by someone before?
JK: It certainly has been. Yet it’s certainly not something that happens every day.
As for why, one thing I’ve heard from retailers and fans alike is how they feel this need for something different. There is great work being done by some great creators all over, but I hear a lot of fatigue regarding big events or tired of the same old same old, so there’s this resurgence of preference for books, which are more original. In the case of NONPLAYER, it doesn’t look or read like any other book on the stands in any other way. It is wholly and completely yours, even if one looks into your influences. The book is something entirely new.
The thing that surprises me most about your stuff is you’re not a guy whose been doing comics very long, but it looks like something by a guy who’s been in the industry for twenty years.
NS: I haven’t had anything published, but I have several piles of half-finished garbage comics since high school.
JK: I’m sure about at least half of those are really good and need to be published even though I know you well enough to know you’re not going to let anyone do so.
NS: Yeah, no. We will let those languish.
Do you think it’s at all possible, given how this discussion has been framed -I’ve been accused of being falsely self critical, where people are saying I’m just acting humble - but from my perspective, much of what is going on is inexplicable. I’ve been trying to make good art my whole life. I’ve been banging my head against that wall for a long, long time.
It feels like having people notice it is surprising and a non-sequiter in my life. I’m not complaining, it’s a wonderful feeling, but I think I also have an impulse to find reasons why my stuff is suddenly being recognized beyond the quality of the work itself. Trying to find something in the current zeitgeist or comics market that makes this moment a perfect receptacle for this comic.
For example, one thing I wonder is - you said the comic would be something new, unless you look into my influences and see it’s something derivative of Moebius and Darrow. Do you think if my comic came out the year after Hard Boiled that it would have the same significance?
JK: That’s a really great question, but it’s hard to say. Would Hard Boiled have the same effect if it came out afterNONPLAYER?
NS: If Hard Boiled came out after my comic it seems fairly obvious to me Hard Boiled would blow my comic to smithereens. Does that then mean the entire comic industry mean the whole comics industry has been on a slide since the early 90s?
JK: That’s a complicated question with a very complicated answer. I don’t want to imply I think comics have been stale ever since then. I was attempting to convey the opposite, that if there is anything in the zeigeist it’s a thirst for new material because there’s been a huge emergence of real, original work in the last three to five years. For instance, if you told someone at Image seven years ago their number one series would be a black and white horror book that didn’t really focus on any monsters, but rather the effects on humanity when society collapses and their true nature takes over, they would have said you were crazy. Yet Walking Dead’s staggering success is entirely due to how different it is from everything else, even in its own genre. I also think the big two are doing work that’s good, but something we’ve grown comfortable with. There’s an obvious recent boom and hunger for new work.
NS: So part of what you’re saying is there’s some sort of fatigue or that the field of superhero comics has been shallow for so long?
JK: I don’t think people are tired of Spider-Man or Batman or whatever, but that it’s what they know. It’s what comes out. The combination of those readers being blindsided by something new and there being talent to do it is something new on the scale it’s happening on. You and I were raised in a generation where doing your one work wasn’t limited to some guy in Canada drawing an Aardvark or two guys in LA drawing rocketship mechanics and a village in Mexico. It was all over. Creator-owned comics wasn’t a rarity, it was a regular thing. What you’re seeing is this generation finally coming to fruition. Thanks to guys like Kirkman for making a marketplace ready for original work, even if it doesn’t consciously know it, allowing something like NONPLAYER to reach the success it has.
NS: So, he’s attracting curious people to comics, creating a space in which curious ideas could flourish as well. I think I could feel that.
JK: It’s what makes me so excited for Tomorrow. Tomorrow, Big T. I feel this type of movement in comics is just starting, even though recent creator-owned successes have been around for six years. I feel NONPLAYER shows - as cliché as this sounds - is the best is yet to come. And that’s what I’m excited about.
NS: I would love to read some other new Image Comics. So I suppose that’s the best possible outcome I can imagine. If other people would not normally consider making a comic see something in NONPLAYER then decide, ‘I’m allowed to do THAT now,” and do something even more groundbreaking.
At WonderCon I saw a couple of little kids look at NONPLAYER. It was the first time I had seen children look at the book. Obviously, I was also horrified since there’s bad language and violence in the comic, but in a weird sort of way, watching them look at the comic reminded me what it was like when I was looking at Darrow and Moebius when I was a kid. It’s so unfiltered through a child’s eyes. For them they really are living the experience when looking at a comic book. I think as adult we disconnect or there are too many layers of disappointment and reality between the work and us.
To watch these kids get into this stuff, it made me think I was really affecting something. Maybe something I drew will plant a seed and effect the way they draw something someday. And that’s cool, because then you’re part of something ongoing and growing and adding you’re adding another stone to that big ole wall.