Normally I think vanity searching is a bad idea. Comic pros have a horrible habit of relentlessly searching their names and then coming after any comics critic who gives them a less than stellar review. Nate Simpson is the chief exception to the rule, in my experience. Though he has worked for years as a concept artist in the video game industry, Simpson made a massive debut with Nonplayer, one of the titles that helped kick off the current Image renaissance thanks to its almost mythical levels of critical acclaim and Hollywood interest. But a series of major events (including a catastrophic injury and Simpson becoming a new parent) sidelined the comic, turning Nonplayer into comics’ Loveless. Fans and critics wondered if another issue of Nonplayer would ever even emerge.
Earlier this year, all that changed with the confirmation from other Image creators that they had seen Nonplayer #2 and it was incredible. The long-delayed second issue did in fact come out this summer, receiving a mixture of heady acclaim and questions about whether the delay had disrupted Simpson’s initial momentum. I was one of the detractors, which led to Simpson dropping into my mentions on Twitter for what was actually a very civil and interesting conversation. I asked Simpson if we could speak in more in-depth in an interview and we exchanged e-mails for some time, discussing everything from Nonplayer’s infamous delay to the changes in Simpson’s techniques and his continued career in video games. If anything, speaking with Simpson reconfirmed a lot of what drew me to Nonplayer in the first place– Simpson is a creator who simply lives and breathes art, who is hard on himself but only because he truly strives for the best.
Nick Hanover for Loser City: I wanted to kick this interview off by first saying I appreciate that you can handle criticism. In my experience, most comics creators, especially writers, tend to handle even lukewarm reviews poorly, but you and I had (in my opinion) a good conversation on Twitter after you came across my review of Nonplayer #2 and I specifically wanted to expand on something we talked about there. You remarked that “I keep imagining what the reviews would have been like if each chapter of Lord of the Rings had to run a critical gauntlet,” while also admitting that since you’re selling your story chapter by chapter, it’s fair game.
In general, I don’t like doing single issue reviews because I think it’s hard to effectively critique something that is in process and things that may jump out as problematic at this point might turn out to be more thoughtful by the end. But given the complications of Nonplayer’s development, do you feel it’s more fair for issue two to be held to higher critical standards than the debut? From what I’ve seen, the reviews have been mostly positive, were you expecting that or did you think there would be more negative reactions?
Nate Simpson: Oh, I always expect the worst. It took every ounce of self control not to just apologize to everybody preemptively when I announced the return of the book. I’m never happy with my own stuff, which is part of why the book has taken so long.
And I certainly get that I’ve got an uphill battle because of the delay. After four years, either people think I’ve been just farting around or I’ve been busy creating the greatest work of art ever conceived. So the two kinds of negative reviews I get are either “who does this lazy asshole think he is” or “I expected something much more sublime.” Your review was a little of both!
The trickiest bit is that the first issue established a novel setting and some likeable characters, stayed well inside my artistic wheelhouse, and made very few narrative commitments. And in the intervening years, some folks really filled in the blanks with what they wanted the story to be.
Meanwhile, I’ve had a very specific story to tell from day one, and it’s a story with a lot of moving parts. The second chapter needed to introduce a lot of new characters, needed to expand on the real-world setting, and needed to set a B and C story in motion. And that all had to happen in the space of 30 pages. Since there’s no omniscient narrator, I had to sell all the scene changes with obvious shifts of palette. Hence the restless color situation.
I guess that’s the long way of saying that I’d braced myself to take some hits, since this issue wasn’t really constructed to stand alone. It’s a necessary part of a seven chapter story, and I’m doing my best to keep the long view, even if that means some readers are frustrated in the short term.
LC: I get and sympathize with that, and that’s why I tried to make it clear that a significant portion of my reaction was due to both the context of the length between issues and the context of what happened in culture during that time.
One element in particular in this second issue stood out to me as something that I feel wouldn’t have leapt out to me if it had come out in 2011, which is the AI subplot. Obviously you couldn’t have predicted so many other AI-focused works would have come out in between these two issues. That said, it now looks like you were eerily prophetic about pop culture interest in AI. The first Nonplayer had that twist at the end with the questioning of how real that virtual world actually was and in this second issue we’ve got similar twists with AI conflicts and characters moving between realms as well as a romantic subplot that now recalls Her and Ex Machina. Given your background in video games, is this a natural obsession in your career or something that’s been on your mind personally for a long time? Because you seem to have put a tremendous amount of thought into the potential conflicts with too-real AIs from a number of angles.
NS: Yeah, that’s always been a concern of mine — that the longer this book takes to come out, the more the world will catch up to it. Not only the world of fiction, but the REAL world. I see stuff like Hololens and Oculus Rift coming down the pike, and I’m thinking “by the time I wrap this thing up, it’s going to be retro!” But the book takes as long as it takes, so I just have to accept that.
But the backbone of the story, I think, is still sound: we have two parallel worlds. Though one contains the other, they are equally valid. That is, the characters inside Jarvath are as alive as we are. And there are all sorts of fun events that spring from misunderstandings on both sides of that divide — the game characters have no idea why they’re being hunted for sport, or by whom. And the humans have no idea that they’re killing real people. Add to that a series of events that allow both parties to travel across that barrier between worlds, and you’ve got a stew going!
And to answer your question about AI more directly — I’m obsessed with the subject. If you get a chance, you should check out Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom. It’s engrossing and completely terrifying. He writes about the dual approaches currently being taken to create machines that think — one group is studying the human mind and attempting to recreate, and in some cases enhance, those mechanisms. Another group is tinkering with technologies that could lead to some kind of self-improving alien god. I’ve actually got both categories of AI in Nonplayer — the game characters are designed to emulate human intelligence, while C.U.B.E. (the giant AI that the police use to catch other rogue AIs) is definitely in the god-in-a-box category.
LC: You mentioned to me before that drawing the “real world” is harder for you than Jarvath. I found that interesting because one of the plots of Nonplayer is people not wanting to separate from Jarvath, so it struck me as a kind of “art reflecting life” statement. What makes Jarvath easier for you to draw? Is Jarvath inspired by some of the game design material you encounter in your day job or has it been more influenced by the comic artists you admire and are influenced by, like Moebius and Seth Fisher?
NS: I am stoked that you brought up Seth Fisher — he doesn’t get mentioned enough these days.
It’s hard for me to itemize my influences, though both of those guys have certainly affected the way I draw. I don’t know that anybody consciously chooses a drawing style — so much of it is automatic. It’s the way your hand chooses to move when you take the leash off of it. If you’ve got any control over it, maybe it’s more about removing elements that are non-essential.
Jarvath is what happens when I let the pen go where it wants to go. I’m so much more comfortable with a curve than with a straight line. I love Arthur Rackham, William Stout — guys who build whole worlds out of interwoven, recurved lines. But I also want there to be an aesthetic contrast between the two worlds, so I’ve decided to see what I can accomplish with a more geometrical style in the real world sequences. That’s been a challenge. I’m happy with some of the results — I think the waldos look pretty cool.
I think I have room to improve in other areas, for sure. I’ve certainly got some ideas for how to enrich the real-world side of things going forward. I think I’ll pay less strict attention to the rules of perspective — especially two-point perspective. Two point perspective is death.
LC: I’ve read in other interviews that you switched your process for making Nonplayer between issues, partially in order to speed up the development time. Originally you were using up to 150 layers in Photoshop for some pages and I believe at one point you had mentioned that with Nonplayer #1 you literally taught yourself how to make comics.
What are some of the tricks you’ve learned in the time since? And what went into developing this new process? I noticed the colors seem more muted this time out, though given the LA setting and the crime procedural vibe of the bulk of the narrative that would appear to be a thematic decision as much as an efficiency choice, i.e. the “aesthetic contrast” between worlds.
NS: The muted color is mostly about making scene transitions legible. In earlier versions, for example, the cut from the game company to the NAIB building was completely baffling. I had to find a really contrasty pair of colors to make clear that the story had moved to a new place.
As far as changing my tools, I did the linework in IllustStudio for the second issue. That was supposed to make it easier for me to edit and rescale, but in the final analysis, I’m not sure it was worth it. The lines in the second issue are cleaner, but when I compare the two issues, I find I like the little imperfections in the Photoshop-generated linework. So I think I’ll probably just go back to Photoshop for the time being.
LC: Something that continuously intrigues me about your artwork is that there is this paradox of a well-structured, almost architectural approach to world building with an almost chaotic amount of detail. Moebius and Fisher kind of have deliciously sloppy lines in their style but your approach takes the madness of their imaginations and adds the linework of someone like Chris Ware. Just as an example, the opening page of Nonplayer #2 struck me as especially inspired, with the processor-like headquarters of Lands Unlimited rising up over a city of buildings that all look like their own worlds. A distinctly LA-like haze hangs over everything, but you can still make out buildings shaped like cute animals, chibi figures, war machines, space ships and more, all on a realistic city grid. There’s so much to drink in with that opening, but it’s extremely easy to follow, which only makes me stare at it harder and for longer. How do you maintain that balance? And with something like those teases of other possible Jarvath-like worlds, how much of it do you plan to integrate into later use? I feel like any one of those other mini-worlds could spin off into its own series.
NS: Definitely one of the ongoing challenges for me is to figure out how to add large amounts of meaningful detail but still have the entire image be cohesive at a glance. A lot of it has to do with consistency of line weight. If you have a large mass of buildings or trees or whatever, as long as you use a small and consistent brush, you can get an all-over tonal effect that works almost like a zip tone at a distance. I once had a guy tell me I did it all wrong: that I should be doing high-detail foregrounds and low-detail backgrounds. I have found that the opposite approach can also produce nice results. Slowly.
As to why it’s even worth adding all that detail. I think about this a lot, because I sacrifice a lot of time on the altar of detail. I think it really comes down to credibility. Somehow I feel like for a world to feel like a real place, it needs to yield information even on the smallest level, just like the real world does. A part of me feels like there should be tiny stories everywhere — like you should be able to ask me why such and such a thing has three screws in a particular spot, and I should be able to give you an answer.
I have shown in Dana’s home gateway that there are several portals to other games, and I do intend to explore some of that going forward. We’re focusing as much as we have on Jarvath because that’s the game Dana’s best at. But her sister Violet has a whole other thing that we’ll be playing with as well.
LC: When Nonplayer #1 came out, it seemed to get picked up for a film adaptation relatively quickly and I was curious about whether there were any new details with that? Now it has become increasingly more common for Image titles to get picked up for adaptation, but at the time it was pretty unusual and I remember you mentioned last year that despite what some people may think, it didn’t exactly lead to a financial windfall for you. Are there lessons you’ve learned from the process that you’ve applied to other projects or future concepts? Or things you wish you’d known beforehand?
You’ve also been involved with character and concept designs for Human Resources, a game that initially seemed to have had a successful Kickstarter run before getting canceled with a few weeks left to go. How has that been coming along?
NS: Human Resources got a very positive reaction, but unfortunately the project did not hit its funding goal. We’re working on an unannounced title right now, and I’m fairly certain that folks who were excited about HR will dig it. That should be announced around the end of the year.
The Hollywood thing has been challenging for me because it’s always sort of hovering just out of reach, tantalizing all of my Horatio Alger impulses. For a project like this, where the ultimate goal would be to get the freedom to work on Nonplayer full-time, a film adaptation is the most obvious escape hatch.
There isn’t much you can do to increase your chances of getting something adapted – I’ve seen others attempt some pretty shameless, cynical stuff (it’s Harry Potter meets Transformers!) to try to get studio interest, and it usually backfires. For my part, I think the original vision for Nonplayer is already cinematic, so it doesn’t take much of a leap to imagine the story on film.
But the studio thing can be a real emotional roller coaster because of how positive everybody is in that business. After your first couple of meetings, you feel like King Midas. It’s only once the project starts making its way through the sausage factory that you realize how many stars have to align perfectly for something to get made.
I saw that firsthand with the Warner option in 2012. Everybody was excited, there seemed to be a lot of momentum, and then we lost our writer and the project immediately hit the skids. The rights have since reverted to me, and there is now a new round of discussions going on. Hope springs eternal, but this time around I’m much more conscious of the gap between what I’d like to see happen and what is actually likely to happen.
I’d love for a Nonplayer movie to get made, but my happiness no longer hinges on the idea. It’s mostly out of my hands.
Nonplayer #1 and #2 are both currently out from Image and Simpson is laying out the third issue. There is no set release date for issue three at this time.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover