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An Interview With Arcadia Writer Alex Paknadel

With only two issues in, writer Alex Paknadel’s Arcadia is looking to be one of the most interesting and excellent creator owned series of 2015. With artist Eric Scott Pfiefer, Paknadel has created a mind bending science fiction comic that explores some very real issue of our modern world with a slightly terrifying but relatively believable and entirely plausible futurist vision. Paknadel is a sharp guy and a gifted story teller, while he’s just entered the comics industry, he’s clearly got something to say that’s necessary & vital.  Below we talk about Arcadia, his inspirations for the series, the books allegory & comics in 2015Pat: How did Arcadia come to be? How did you get hooked up with Boom!/Archaia & the artist Pfieffer?

Alex: Arcadia’s been coming to me in flashes over a number of years now, but it really came together when I saw Adam Curtis’ seminal documentary series ‘All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace’. Curtis is a British documentary filmmaker who really tends to polarize opinion at home and abroad. His stuff doesn’t even pretend towards objectivity, but his politics happen to chime with my own for the most part so I’m always on-board. This particular effort really crystallized a huge number of my then amorphous anxieties over the far-reaching ideological influence of Silicon Valley. I’m all for innovation and greater technological literacy, but it seems to me that tech is slowly but surely encroaching on the utopia-shaped hole once occupied by religion here in the West. I have friends – very, very smart friends – who’ve told me with total sincerity that we don’t need to worry about inequality or fossil fuel depletion because Elon Musk or someone like him will come along and sort it out. I’m naturally suspicious of attitudes like this because they reek of secular fatalism. The elephant in the room here is that many of the world’s problems are eminently soluble using the tools at hand right now, but because they require some fairly fundamental adjustments to our existing lifestyles nobody’s prepared to entertain them. In other words, we’ll happily give the tech sector ever more power in the hope that they’ll do the right thing so we don’t have to. That’s dangerous, and that’s what I’m trying to address in Arcadia to some extent. I want it to be a ripping yarn first and foremost, but you have to stick your neck out with any art or there’s really no point.
Regarding how I got hooked up with Boom!, I initially approached Will Dennis after having been prodded to do so by my boy Ollie Masters, who’s currently writing the excellent ‘The Kitchen’ for Vertigo. Will dug the concept and passed it along to the peerless & awesome Matt Gagnon and Bryce Carlson at Boom!, who got in touch with me shortly thereafter and commissioned it on the spot. I was then taken under the expansive wings of super-editors Jasmine Amiri and Eric Harburn, who’d both been blown away by some samples they’d seen from Eric Scott Pfeiffer. They showed me some of Eric’s gorgeous work so I Skyped him to make sure he wasn’t a serial killer and, reassured, I asked them to bring him on-board. The final piece of the puzzle was the lettering, so I asked Jas and Eric to take a look at the work of my friend Colin Bell, who writes and letters the award-winning indie ‘Dungeon Fun’ here in the UK. They liked Colin’s work, brought him into the fold and now he’s lettering everything in sight!

Pat: All Watched Over By Machines Of Ever Loving Grace is a huge starting point on the series. Without giving too much away, how does the documentary directly influence what readers are experiencing in the series? Do you see the world of Arcadia as a logical progression of our world based on the ideas presented in the documentary?

Alex: I’d say that Arcadia’s an extreme metaphor based on some of that documentary’s conclusions if that makes sense. I don’t think any of this ridiculous stuff will happen, but I do think we can take the world as it is today and see Arcadia in it if we squint. For instance, I’d argue that the leitmotif of our age is atomization. Back in the early nineties we all thought the Web was going to be this powerful unifying force, but if anything it’s hammered us into our own subjective realities to an unprecedented extent. We don’t really have to expose ourselves to any views that don’t chime with our own now, thanks to some very clever curation algorithms and logged preferences. This really amounts to the death knell of politics because fewer and fewer people are prepared to compromise on anything. We’re all off in our own little worlds of cute kittens and fleeting (albeit justified in many cases) outrage, and it’s really just a hall of mirrors. I’m not saying my doo-doo doesn’t stink, mind. I’m still surprised when the world doesn’t act in accordance with the collective opinion of the people I follow on Twitter, but I really shouldn’t be. As useful as our digital tools are, I’m convinced that the next great social upheaval will begin offline. If we’re really unlucky its “disconnectedness” will be the whole point. Wouldn’t that be tedious!

Pat: Yeah, that’s a really good point, I don’t know if your familiar with Deadspin at all, but the sites co-founder wrote something very similar about how social media has become this political echo chamber. It’s crazy though, one time, just fucking around at work, I was tweeting about how nuts Men’s Rights & Gamergate are and I ended up being bombarded with tweets of people trying to pick apart my argument or saying “let’s falsely accuse him of rape” like wild shit. That’s what kind of baffles me though, is if you literally have the entire world of knowledge at your finger tips on the internet, how can anybody subscribe to some batshit crazy theory with the wealth of information that’s afforded to you? There are still people that believe Obama is not a US Citizen or that he’s a socialist, it’s nuts.

Alex: And that’s because the resource itself is so sprawling and folksonomically structured that you can corroborate almost anything if you look hard enough. This has given rise to an attendant erosion of trust in expert opinion. Nobody’s comfortable feeling ignorant anymore, which is bizarre to me because personally I sleep better at night knowing that idiots like me don’t have access to the nuclear codes, you know? I wouldn’t trust myself to open a can of tuna without causing an international incident, so I’m more than happy to follow smart people’s lead on the big stuff.

Pat: That goes all the way back to Socrates, “I know now, that I know nothing”. One thing I wanted to get into with Arcadia, which may or may not relate to what were talking about here, was the economic allegory of it. I thought the whole idea of the citizens literally working to maintain some semblance of existence while the rich can afford to do all sorts of unique things to their bodies is a great metaphor for economic inequality, how important is it going to be in Arcadia?

Alex: Thanks, Patrick. The whole inequality strand in Arcadia is very important to me personally, but it won’t be a huge component of the first arc. I wanted it there as a feature of the landscape because I was trying to give the world some texture and it occurred to me that although it’s impossible for anyone to starve in Arcadia, privation had to be a factor. Entertainments always end up speaking to and for the time of their composition in one way or another, so you might as well exercise some control over that. We can disagree over the causes of inequality as part of a sensible debate, sure, but for the most part we all agree that it’s approaching morally indefensible levels, so it couldn’t be ignored. Of course I can’t cram the whole world into Arcadia because I ain’t Margaret Atwood and I never will be, but I can try to produce something that functions as an entertainment yet still poses moderately interesting questions about burning issues of the day. One of the big themes of the book is that we can’t ever be truly free of personal or collective history, so that’s where the inequality comes in. Arcadia’s this ambitious Year Zero project that’s supposed to be utterly removed from the sins and prejudices of the past, but it ends up rehashing all that crap almost from the moment it goes live. I know this is unflattering, but I guess my point is that Arcadia can’t be perfect as long as there are human beings in there. We’re gloriously chaotic and contradictory so we really don’t have a hope in hell of creating utopia. Perhaps that’s for the best when you consider the fact that change and growth would, by definition, be impossible in a utopia.

Pat: Arcadia’s this ambitious Year Zero project that’s supposed to be utterly removed from the sins and prejudices of the past, but it ends up rehashing all that crap almost from the moment it goes live.”
Yeah and that can go back to All Is Watched Over in that the documentary is basically showing how that happened with Silicon Valley already in the 1990’s and it’s probably going to repeat itself again and again if we keep expecting different results from similar solutions. You mentioned this being the first arc of Arcadia. How much story do you have for this series as a whole? Is it an ongoing or do you plan on doing a series of mini-series that connect an ongoing story like the HellBoy/BPRD model?

Alex: It’s an ongoing in the sense that Boom! have given it the deepest commitment they possibly can, and I’m boundlessly grateful to them for that. That said, they can’t keep it going indefinitely if the audience isn’t there and I respect that. Our first issue sold out so we’re off to a tremendous start, but my job now is to sustain and hopefully grow our audience. I have big plans for this world and I’d love to see them in print because I’m having a blast working with these guys, but there’s an awful lot of great stuff out there now. Standards are absurdly high across the board and that’s delightful, but it does mean that all of us – from minnows like me all the way up to veteran pros – are constantly having to outdo ourselves every month. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t find that daunting, but I can only give it my best shot and hope people join me for the ride. If they do then there’ll be lots more where Arcadia came from. If not? Well, I’ll take my lumps and try again.

Pat: The amount of high quality and leading edge creator owned comics is great both from a consumer stand point and I imagine it’s great for a creator as well, but I can see how it could be daunting. Ten years ago, all these guys that did creator owned were getting discovered by Marvel & DC, now those same creators are going back to creator owned with a much higher profile. And that’s great overall, I think it’s pretty well established that as good as some creators work for hire may be, their creator owned stuff will usually be superior. Still, it can’t help but be intimidating to step into a market where readers have to pick your book either with or at the expense of multiple comics from people like Grant Morrison, Brian K Vaughan, Ed Brubaker, Scott Snyder, Matt Fraction, Jonathan Hickman or Greg Rucka. That said, I feel like Arcadia has a very distinctive voice and idea that set’s it apart from a lot of other work out there. Outside of having the sort of necessary story elements be great (characters, plot, art ect) it’s exploring idea’s and questions that are hyper modern and like nothing else in comics. Was that something you were conscious of going into the series? Do you feel like this is a story that should be told right now?

Alex:  Your observations about the industry are pretty well founded, I think. However, although the dust hasn’t settled yet I think we’re seeing boldness rewarded across the board now, not just at the top. I doubt Lumberjanes, Shaft, Memetic, Squirrel Girl, Gotham Academy, High Crimes and Giant Days would have been greenlit fifteen years ago, but now they’re these fantastic critical and sales juggernauts. The audience was always there, but some of the old commercial shibboleths have been swept away by new companies, new people and fresh thinking in recent years. I’m happy to be even slightly on the radar at a time like this because it’s looking more and more like an authentic renaissance to me right now. Creators who’ve been toiling away in relative obscurity for years because they weren’t mainstream enough are finally getting their due, and dazzling young ‘uns who can stay up past midnight without coughing up blood are pulling down the pillars of the temple too – as has been their right and their duty since time immemorial. Part of me wonders if anything I have to say will be remotely relevant in six months time because things are changing so quickly, but all the change I’m seeing is for the better so I’m just happy to be part of the conversation right now. Maybe Arcadia will strike a chord and maybe it won’t. Either way, I’m just grateful for the opportunity to be the inexplicable old fart at the back of the class of 2015 group photo, you know? They’re a terrific bunch and I’m proud to call some of them my friends

Pat: You mentioned some great books up there and I think one of the cool parts of this new interest in creator owned work is the way that places like BOOM! or Black Mask have stepped in to be home’s for up and coming talent. Image can’t have the same amount of spots that they did back in the day, it’s just wouldn’t be good business to pass up a book from a known quantity for somebody unproven. They still put out those books but it’s not like it used to be where they were breaking lots of new talent. To see stuff like you mentioned above in addition to your work and others is pretty heartening. Do you think that the growing comics market is drifting towards creator owned? Is it partially returning lapsed readers that are looking for something more adult & creative? As of now it feels like comics are doing all the big budget/high minded science fiction better then film can and it may have always been that way

Alex:  Well look, I don’t buy into this myth that Image is all about pros now. One look at the lineup for Brandon Graham’s mind-maceratingly exciting ISLAND anthology should be enough to put paid to any idea that Image is a closed shop. However, I do think they’ve naturally positioned themselves at the top of the pyramid now, and that’s more to do with their ethos than anything. Image are a kind of co-operative, so making a book for them is seriously hard work. I’d imagine it pays to have been around the block a few times in the industry so you know how to put your book together, edit it and market it properly. You can do that if you’re a total noob, sure, but at a guess I’d say the DeConnicks, Gillens and McKelvies of the world have learned enough at the coalface to be able to get things moving from a standing start without rupturing something. Boom! do all of the behind-the-scenes wrangling for Arcadia on my behalf, which suits me down to the ground because at this stage in my career I think I’d give myself a hernia with all of that stuff. I’m learning the ropes so I need structure and I need hard deadlines. Others don’t and more power to them, but I don’t think there’s a right way and a wrong way. I have terrific editors who know when to let me sleep in and when to light a fire under me, and that’s the only way I’ll learn.
Overall I’d say the industry is leaning towards full or partial creator ownership, and that’s certainly where you’re seeing the bleeding edge stuff at the moment. Have to say though, everyone benefits. Marvel and DC have slowly but surely been importing an indie sensibility into their output for years in order to attract new readers, and it’s really working. Fraction’s Hawkeye would have been quietly taken out the back and shot at the pitch stage back in the nineties, but in this decade it was this soaring critical and cosplay phenomenon. How cool is that?
As for film, I’m not going to make any friends with this but I think when Hollywood gets science fiction right it’s unbeatable. Mad Max: Fury Road is a perfect film and it demanded the spectacle only film can provide. I love comics more than anything, but I’ve never read a comic that moved me or made me think more deeply than Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. Morrison’s Animal Man came close, but in terms of pure emotional heft, film’s still the daddy for me. Where the comics medium distinguishes itself in my opinion is in the sheer volume of good science fiction. Hollywood will put out one transcendent science fiction film per year if we’re lucky, whereas in comics you’ll get maybe fifteen great new science fiction books in a bad year. That’s a ridiculous batting average, and that’s why there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. Getting a good science fiction film made is a minor miracle, but getting a good science fiction comic made is a Wednesday.

Pat: Yeah & I think that’s what I meant overall with comics and film. Not that comics aren’t hard work because they certainly are, but you don’t need a couple million for a small budget which significantly lowers the barrier to entry. I do think that the economics and market of comics does make for a lot more great science fiction from the medium then film as of right now in 2015. Like you, I deeply loved Mad Max Fury Road and watching that was an experience but with that said, it’s a Mad Max movie. That’s not to be reductive, but just saying that it got made partially for the name, if that was the same movie but not tied to Mad Max I don’t think it’s ever done. Meanwhile, as you said, great science fiction is every Wednesday. The Fly is an amazing film but personally, I might get more out of Morrison’s Animal Man, just because it has so much more to it. And again, The Fly is one of the greatest science fiction films ever, but what Morrison does on Animal Man can’t be done on film and I kind of appreciate that limitless imagination it has. It’s crazy, I hear people saying that Nicolas Refn is going to do a film adaptation of The Incal and I’m like, how is that even possible?

Alex: I think you’re right, and that’s maybe why comics were the preserve of blue collar artists on both sides of the Atlantic for many years. Cheap to produce, low overheads, amazing artistry, stellar results.
I see what you mean about the comics form being inherently untranslatable, but we’ve seen a convergence (and subsequent split) in the last couple of decades. Bendis, Ellis, Morrison, and Millar brought cinematic beats, grammar and spectacle to comics, and they sent shock-waves rippling through the industry. People forget that we hadn’t seen that decompressed, mumblecore approach before. Recently though you’ve had people like Morrison (again), Gillen, McKelvie and Spurrier performing these really ambitious formal experiments. You could call these experiments postmodern, but really these guys are just hyper-aware of the page as a compositional space or canvas. Then you have people like Waid, Diggle and Busiek who do the same thing on an almost subliminal level. Waid can take you from a janitor’s closet to outer space in three panels because he’s a comics Jedi, but when he does it, he just winks at you and moves on. Now all of these cats use the space to their advantage because they’re very, very clever. I wouldn’t dare attempt that stuff right now because I’m still getting my head around pacing. I really hope I’ll get there before too long because it’s part and parcel of respecting the medium as a discrete entity, but for now I’ll be happy if I put out an evenly paced comic that makes the reader feel something. Baby steps, man.

Pat: I would say you got the last part down.
When you mention Bendis, Ellis, Morrison, Millar & Gillen/McKelvie; I think part of that comes from how they take a lot of influence from outside of comics, which has been vital for the mediums growth. That’s part of what I appreciated about Arcdia again, it really feel like its looking outward at the world today and pulling all that in. It’s funny you mention Ellis, because in a lot of ways, Arcadia feels like something in the same wave that he rides in without being derivative. Who are some of the comics creators or comics that have had a big influence on you and your comics writing?

Alex:  I’m very lucky because a large number of my influences have been direct. I live about a quarter of a mile away from Andy Diggle, who’s been incredibly generous with his time and counsel over the past decade. My friend Paul Harrison-Davies is a brilliant cartoonist and comics encyclopedia, and he’s introduced me to some phenomenal European and Japanese comics I would never have discovered on my own. Mike Carey was kind enough to let me look at his Vertigo pitches, which helped me structure a pitch document in a format that wouldn’t make the editors over there dismiss my stuff out of hand. More recently I’ve had some wonderful steers from ‘Amelia Cole’ writers Adam P. Knave and D.J. Kirkbride.
In terms of indirect influences, I’d have to go with Brett Lewis of ‘The Wintermen’ fame. I was falling out of love with comics a little bit until I picked the ‘Wintermen’ trade up on a whim at my local bookstore. It’s a masterclass from start to finish. The dialogue just crackles, and there’s not a comma that doesn’t belong.
Then there’s Grant Morrison, whose writing genuinely saved my life on more than one occasion.