Transcription by Katrina King. Katrina thinks you should read the whole interview or else she’ll do a little reconciling of her own!
One of the best comic book debuts in a long time happened this summer with the release of The Reconcilers #1, a 96-page thrilling science-fiction adventure story that is a real page-turner. The Reconcilers is from an idea developed by Jens Pil Pilegaard, The Wire actor R. Emery Bright and Virtuality and Gravity star Eric Jensen. But if you think this is just a side vanity project by a couple of actors, then you are very wrong. The legendary Neal Adams is on board as Executive Editor and Project Consultant. That, plus the amazing script, not to mention the incredible artwork by Shepherd Hendrix make for a truly special comic. Just after the release of the first issue I caught up with series co-creator R. Emery Bright and series co-creator and writer Erik Jensen for a talk about the book, its influences and future.
POP CULTURE ZOO: So I guess to start off with, if you guys don’t mind running through a little bit how The Reconcilers comic came about?
Erik Jensen: Yeah, sure! Emery and our co-creator Jens Pil Pilegaard had the idea initially. You know, actually, Emery and I were just talking about that, we were reminiscing about that. Emery, you wanna tell him that story?
Emery Bright: In terms of The Reconcilers, the whole idea was germinating in my head, after all the sort of corporate malfeasance that we’re exposed to with ENRON and then going from there, it sort of woke something up in me that had been lying dormant for awhile. I’m from Liberia originally, and I came to the US following the coup in my country. Which, like many other coups or wars in developing countries, had been set in because of shadow corporate forces.
EJ: And it was sort of about resources, too..
EJ: …with the mega-corporations coming in and exploiting resources and people.
REB: Yes. Exactly. So they’re putting paramount business interests, over and above. So that sort of had been in the back of my mind. And it’s.. I don’t know if you’ve read David Korten’s When Corporations Rule the World?
“I cannot remember when I’ve been this excited flipping pages on my way to the climax of a comic. Writer Eric Jensen and artists Neal Adams and Shepherd Hendrix plunge you into a richly imagined future that’s as thrilling as it is grim. A dark, twisted and very, very human tale. Take that, motherfrakker!” – Michael Taylor
PCZ: I have not..
REB: In that, as he’s pointed out, given the direction things are going some might say quite inevitable, that one day these mega-corps would no longer be content with being shadow forces and would start to operate as sovereign entities and with their own private armies. And we kind of see some of that starting to crystalize a little bit now, this marriage between mega-corps and military contractors. Especially when it comes to energy companies, around the world you see, in Chad and where ever, you see tobacco sources, or whatnot. So that’s kind of what started germinating it in my head, and the notion that these corporations always try to stack the deck. Y’know, if you have one attorney, the next company has two attorneys.
REB: If you have ten attorneys, the next person wants twenty in-house counsel. And so you can easily see how you’d go from a security force to some sort of in-house militia. So it’s no coincidence that the story itself takes place in a futuristic mining town, and the conflicts that occur there are over energy resources. So yeah, that’s kind of where that whole notion started; mega-corps – sovereignty – access to power. And so that, in my head, is kind of how things started. Talking it over with, in my head and in Jens Pilegaard’s head, the other creator, and talking all these ideas with Erik, we all started to realize; yeah, y’know, this process of reconciliation, on the one hand, it’s a perfect compromise in some ways between forces at war and innocent civilians. People used to say “Take it outside!” whenever there was a fight, which in this case it’s actually “Take it inside!”
EJ: From Pilegaard’s and Emery’s conversations, those sort of grew into a conversation with me. We were hooked up by a mutual friend. I’m a screen-writer and a playright by trade, and I noticed that all of my work had themes of an abuse of power and what that means. What happens when sort of normal, everyday people are caught up in extraordinary situations, and they either choose to rise to the occasion and try and fight the good fight, which is sort of an heroic quality; or they choose to succumb, submit and sometimes even collaborate with the powers that be, which is sort of has a villainous quality to it. And when you start talking about heroes and villains, my lifelong love of comic books sort of came into play. [laughs]
So then literally this world was sort of too big for any other medium, and as we talked more characters and circumstances and situations started to develop and this grew from being initially about doing it as a four issue series. Starting with issue one it sort of grew from that into being the 96 page graphic novel you’re holding in your hand. Emery is willing to talk to anybody at any time, so he’s got an incredible ability to sort of coerce people into succumbing to his will… [laughs]
REB: [chuckling] It’s sort of binding and having them breathe at my discretion…
EJ: Exactly, exactly. He got his sister to talk Neal Adams into having a meeting with us, and that’s when things really took off. Neal was an instrumental part in being an executive editor on the project and helping us develop the characters, giving the characters a good strong backbone and double-checking our work to make sure the art and the story were good.
EJ: What’s incredible too, with his legendary status and everything, you’d think that Neal could kind of dictate terms to people, but he’s actually really collaborative. In the meetings that we were in, talking about the cover and the characters and other things, we talked about other artists, Frank Frazetta, Kirby, guys like that. I mean, I’m sure guys that he actually came up and was friends with. And we just talked about the sort of the larger influences we wanted to kind of find their way into the book. We talked a lot about old westerns. When we described the plot to him, he’s like, “Yeah, yeah. I get it. A western in space. Love it.” [laughs] And it’s like, man that really boils it down! That’s what it is exactly, it’s Pale Rider meets Bladerunner, y’know, that’s great, we love that!
PCZ: [laughs] Exactly!
EJ: Given Neal’s politics, his own politics and the work he’s done with the Holocaust, and on behalf of artist’s rights and whatnot, he’s always sort of throwing stones at the big machine, and I think that that really resonated with him. Obviously we speak of coercion in jest; he has been so kind and he just was willing to help.
PCZ: What I noticed my first read through of the graphic novel, and showing my age a little bit here, it really felt like a lot of the old Heavy Metal stories and Epic Illustrated and stuff like that from…
EJ: Oh man, you know… I want to be your friend and your brother!
EJ: Exactly! Heavy Metal and Mobius were a big influence on me growing up. I didn’t have Playboy and stuff under my pillow, I had a Heavy Metal magazine.
EJ: I’d like to say something untoward was going on, but actually I was reading it and devouring it, y’know.
EJ: Those stories… I think Manara is another guy who drew for Heavy Metal. I mean those stories were such a huge influence on me and the sort of dystopian worlds that they created, the sort of post-apocolyptic worlds that were featured in that magazine are just stunning, so that makes me really happy that that came across.
PCZ: I wasn’t allowed to have those as a kid, so I would run down to the corner store, and read them sitting on the floor in front of the magazine rack. And so each month, it was like “When’s the new one coming out?”
EJ: Yeah, exactly! Exactly! Well, I think that a lot of my influences, in terms of a sense of justice, and a sense of right and wrong, and also sort of where the gray areas meet, I think those are heavily influenced by comic books. And you know, when you’re reaching out to a younger audience, I don’t know if our book qualifies, I think it’s probably too intense for some audiences, but you’re actually exerting kind of a cultural and political influence. Whenever a totalitarian government comes into power in the real world, the first people they go after are religious people and artists. Any country where there is a coup or a revolution or anything like that, the first people they take down are people who are of the cloth and the artists because they, musicians, writers, y’know visual artists, they have a huge influence over how people see things.
REB: We’re fortunate to live in a place where through art we can effect social change and entertain. Arts and entertainment, and so I think that’s what we’re striving for.
EJ: Well, hopefully, the story-telling is first and foremost with us, we try not lead with our politics.
REB: Oh sure, sure.
PCZ: The other thing that I really appreciated about the book, even though you allude to the Holy Outcome and this huge change in the world, it’s mainly about the characters and how it affected them before and after and that was really interesting to read.
REB: Oh great!
EJ: I’m glad that came across too. My friend Jeanette [Khan] was the editor of DC Comics for 20 years, and she was actually honored at Comic-Con. She was my friend before she was sort of an artistic co-hort, so her words about the book are sort of in line with what you’re talking about. I got a little bored with superheroes after awhile. That’s why I went to Frank Miller’s Ronin, something that Jenette was the editor on. A big influence on me. And she talked about sort of having an epiphany about comic books being more than superhero books. That’s sort of the track that we’re on with this book now. Which isn’t to say that Viking Warrior Publishing won’t be interested in doing other kinds of books. We’re talking about doing a horror book, I think we’re talking about doing a superhero book, but we’re pretty proud of this being our first foray into the field.
“(Writer) Erik Jensen is man full of passion and talent, and both are evident in The Reconcilers, his first graphic novel. In a future where avaricious corporations rule and ordinary people are discarded, Erik has found Sean Hexhammer, the one man who’s willing to buck the system… Like all good science fiction, The Reconcilers holds a mirror up to our own complicated world (can you spell Iraq?) and makes us take a hard look at how decisions are made here– and who gets to make them.” – Jeanette Khan
PCZ: And you packed it with lots of interesting details. I don’t know if it was the artist or you that snuck in the little Virtuality season one box set in the one scene. [laughter] That was pretty fantastic! It’s nice to know that show got a season one in some reality.
EJ: Yeah, I don’t know if this was clear or not, butI kind of snuck it in there. Also, there’s another reference to it. The character who’s helmet gets blown out is named Pike which was the captain on Virtuality, and also was the name of the captain on the original Star Trek pilot.
EJ: Yeah, no, I was pretty sneaky about that. I asked him to draw it really, really small so you could barely see it, but I guess people have picked up on it!
PCZ: No, it’s right there.
EJ: Well, I mean, [Virtuality] was an influence on me too! Peter Berg…I had ten days off before I started shooting, it was a big ensemble show, so they had all this other stuff to shoot. I really wanted to get in there and fly my spaceship. I said, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do with all my time.” and Peter said, “Well why don’t you write something? You’re sitting around… just do something!” And Peter being the sort of hyper, creative person that he is, really kind of sparked something in me, and doing Virtuality is when I did the majority of writing on The Reconcilers and the majority of thinking of it too. Just being invited into Ron Moore’s world and seeing the size of the set and how many people it took, I was like, y’know we could do this, something like this, for a much smaller budget, and maybe this is a way to get a vision of the The Reconcilers in front of people, and get those stories out. You don’t necessarily need to hire a set designer, you can be your own set designer. You don’t need to hire a production designer, you can be your own production designer. Being around Ron, too, Ron’s got this incredible mind. You want to talk about science fiction with him, he invites that kind of conversation. So that was inspirational, too.
PCZ: You know in comic books there’s no special effects budget, so you’re set there.
REB: Yeah, right, exactly.
EJ: [laughs] Although we do wrestle with budgetary issues, don’t get me wrong!
PCZ: That kind of leads to the question. Why do this through, basically, your own comic book company instead of going to Image or one of the other independents that like science fiction comics as well?
EJ: Well, one of the things that Emery and I firmly believe in, is like we were talking about Jeanette Kahn, create your own properties. We do have investors, but a large part of The Reconcilers is owned by us, the members of the publishing company, who are the creators. As we get bigger, I hope we’re able to maintain that spirit and that action, but if this book does well the people who signed on board to maybe donate some of their time, instead of being paid for all of their time, those people will be duly compensated for that sweat equity, we firmly believe in that. If that’s the company you believe in, why sell the candy store, y’know?
PCZ: Exactly! What kind of a reaction or feedback did you guys get at Comic-Con?
EJ: What do you think Emery?
REB: Oh, it was incredible! Similar to everything that has been iterated, and reiterated here. Those who had read the book came up to us with the same feeling. In terms of those who just were being introduced to the book, first of all, as you pointed out, Neal Adams, they’re interested in everything he does. Because Comic-Con is really about the entertainment, it is about the spectacle so to speak, the reconciliation aspect of the book is what grabbed them in the first instance. Gladiator meets Bladerunner, in this instance, being the log line.
EJ: That sort of hooked people in, but what made them want to stick around was really what you were talking about earlier. The characters and the personal struggles the characters had within the story, that’s what keeps them coming back. You can have a great concept, but if a show like Lost hadn’t had good character development, and been so well written, like the other stuff J.J. Abrams does, if that stuff wasn’t well written, it wouldn’t fly. People wouldn’t stick around for it.
REB: Exactly. The emotional hook in the story is what really, at the end of the day, what people walk away with. That feeling when they walk away, after having read the book, they’re entertained but there’s an emotional hook that draws you in with a young woman who’s put in this precarious position. She’s by no means a golden child, and totally unprepared for this and it falls to her. And this colorful, eclectic group of people who all have their own unique stories, and they’re three dimensional beings that have to survive in this world.
EJ: Yeah, I mean I think that’s something that people can relate to. But just on a fanboy level there was this kid that came up to us, probably seventeen years old, and he was thumbing through the book and we were telling him about it, and he was looking at the simple little video presentation we had about the book. He was like, “I gotta get this! I gotta get this!” and he patted his pockets around for the money, and he goes, “Oh my god!” And we said, “What?” And he said, “I don’t have twenty dollars.” It was only thirteen dollars, but he didn’t have any money. So I was just about to give it to him, just to hand it to him for free and he said, “No no no no, I’ll come back tomorrow.” Y’know, well yeah, I’ve heard that a million times.
And he actually came back the next day with a shiny new twenty dollar bill like he felt he was buying something special. That one reaction was worth the whole price that we paid for the booth at the con for me. There was another kid who bought one the previous day. He said, “I’ve been looking for you guys for an hour, I wanted to tell you how much I loved this book.” And when you get responses like that, it makes all of the sweat and all of the arguing and all of the missed deadlines and the completed deadlines, it just makes it all worth it. At a certain point when you’re creating something like this, I mean you’re a writer, you’re not even sure whether it’s flying any more. Are people gonna get this? Are we doing the right thing here? Did we make the right choice? I want this character thing to come across, but are people really gonna get it? And when they do, it’s just so satisfying.
PCZ: I think it’s the same thing along the lines of the high price of movie tickets. It better be a quality product. But this book more than delivers, I mean, like I said, I’ve read it several times already, so I’ve definitely got my money’s worth.
EJ: Excellent! Excellent, excellent.
REB: Thank you.
EJ: Well, we’re working on issue two now. We actually think with the sales we had on issue one, and some further interest from our investors, issue two going to be out real soon. We’ve talked to a couple of people about distribution, we’re pretty sure that’s going to come through really soon. So, I can’t say for certain just contractually, but I’m confident that that’s going to happen quite, quite quickly. And being at William Morris Endeavor, where I’m represented, they’re responsible for a lot of the content out there. So I’m pretty certain that, sort of extending the story through other ancillary opportunities, like video games and stuff like that, I think that might be on the horizon as well.
PCZ: So I was going to say that, as amazing a read as the book was, the best part was at the very end where it said, “Join us for the next volume.” So do you have long term plans for down the road?
EJ: Well, volume two is going to be a 50-some page issue, because we want to, again, do something special. We didn’t do a 96 page issue to make money, it was probably more expensive and pricey and so forth to do that, than it would’ve been to do things the normal way. But we want to do a 50-something page issue and I think that once we do that, we’ll have established a pretty good audience, and hopefully they’ll respond to the story the way other people have been responding. After that, we’re going to just settle into monthly 22 page issues. So I think we’re looking at probably October for the 52-pager to come out, and hopefully by then all the distribution stuff will be taken care of, and we’ll be doing a monthly thing. I mean, my favorite books are the ones that span almost a hundred issues, like Y the Last Man and Fables is getting up high now too. That’s some of my favorite writing. So I’m hoping that that we’ll be able to continue for at least a hundred issues, we’ve got the whole story in our heads.
REB: Yeah, we do! [laughs]
EJ: There were no choices that were made in the book that were accidental. They’re all intended to be followed out as the story goes on. And things get really intense and really weird. It’s a lot of fun, and I’m really looking forward to kind of dealing that hand out very slowly, so people will be like you were with Heavy Metal magazine. “When’s the next one coming out??”
Thank you to Erik Jensen and R. Emery Bright for their time! Pick up the first issue of The Reconcilers right now!