Several weeks ago, Ryan K. Lindsay reached out to see if we wanted to take a peek at his upcoming new Dark Horse series Negative Space and talk to him about it. A quick glance at Owen Gieni’s imaginative and unique art made it clear Negative Space was going to be a different series than readers of Lindsay’s previous work for publishers like Monkey Brain might be used to. Following Guy, a writer whose emotions are being sucked up by a shady organization with possible Elder God ties, Negative Space is a novel look at both the creative space and social empathy that happens to look like nothing else on the shelves. We chatted with Lindsay about the genesis of the series, its meta aspects and working with Owen Gieni in part one of our two part interview. Be sure to also check out our review of the first issue.
Nick Hanover: As far as concepts go, Negative Space is pretty damn meta. The first issue follows Guy, an empathic writer whose sadness is being mined by a company that “harvests emotions and sells out the human race one day at a time.” There’s a bit of Cabin in the Woods in the framing device, where some company drones set up bad luck to ruin Guy’s day even more and brag about it. But I’m curious to hear what the genesis of Negative Space was. What inspired you to dream up a multinational corporation harvesting human emotion for Lovecraftian monstrosities? It was Facebook, wasn’t it? Because lord knows that company likes to harvest my emotions…
Ryan K Lindsay: The genesis was what is the very first page, and what has always been my briefest high concept: it’s about a guy who sits down to write his suicide note and gets writer’s block.
It’s the perfect blend of comedy and tragedy. Well, it is if you look at the world the way I do.
With that opening salvo, I then started feeling out for more of the world. Who was this guy, what was his world, why does he want to die, and how’s he gonna get through this block? It would appear, like me, our lead, Guy Harris, tries to walk the block off. And once I got his feet moving, he just started banging around into more and more story. Initially, in my head, I thought of Guy’s night as if After Hours had been directed by David Cronenberg. It was going to be weird but also uncomfortable. It was going to freak you out a little.
As for the collision of the Cabin in the Woods flunkies basically running a high stakes emotional Facebook scam, yeah, you’ve nailed that one right on its wet black nose. I can’t remember the initial moment that all locked this into place but once the trackers were trying to make Guy kill himself, I had to give them a grand reason. The Evorah came from this and as soon as Owen’s concept sketches for these deep water emotional munching monsters came through I knew we were on the rightest of right tracks.
What it all boils down to is, I wanna explore depression, deep suicidal depression, and I wanna do it through a very gonzo, very PKD lens, and yet retain the truth behind it all. It’s been…a balancing act.
NH: I might be a little cynical, but it also seems like the story is commenting on the way we kind of hope to watch our friends and family and total strangers suffer on social media because it makes us feel better ourselves. There was a recent study somewhere about the toll social media addiction has on your emotional well being and then of course there was that infamous news story about Facebook literally messing with people’s emotions for “science.” Even with that subtext though, there’s still this hope in Guy’s narrative, a feeling that he is meant for better things. Did you have a moment of feeling bad for Guy yourself? Is there some Vonnegutian authorial guilt I detect in this first issue?
RKL: Wait, am I supposed to feel bad as the god of these people-things I create? Gah! I write some pretty terrible things [content and/or quality] and I don’t think I’ve ever considered this. My characters have certainly made me feel, but I am certain that’s through proxy. If you’ve ever read my short SURVIVOR [spoilers: no one has], you’ll see a story hugely personal and emotional to me but I never once take it as real. But what if it is…? Oh, you bastard, I’ll be up all night on that one now.
Though you’ve now made me consider something I don’t think I ever would have entertained which is this: as Guy’s maker/creator, is it in my best interest or even duty to “fix” him? Am I here to correct his suicidal depression? If I don’t, am I a mammoth dick? And as such, I’m now split into two camps of thoughts:
Is this how our god/deity/benevolent and protective order of elks grand poobah sees us? Do they create only to observe? Is tampering just ruining the authenticity of our experience?
And also, tangentially:
Wouldn’t it be pretty rubbish if my story was all about hooking Guy up with the right dude to love, and having him save the day, and then that ‘cures’ his depression? What does that tell all the actually suicidally depressed people out there about their affliction? That they should just harden up and do some rad things and then suddenly they’ll feel fine? Wouldn’t it be incredibly insensitive to raise this issue only to solve it in a way that completely negates the real world issue I’m cashing in on as shorthand for ‘character feels/motivation?’
I guess to actually come close to answering your question, I don’t feel bad. I found Guy depressed, and yes I made his night worse, but I’m also hopefully going to do something meaningful with his story for him and for the people out there who double down with their cash to also observe. And I am certain they aren’t doing it to maliciously smirk and feel superior, I think we all seek out challenging fiction because it’s a safe place to test our empathy and to openly feel and cry and vent and refresh.
I teach kids in my class writing and when we hit narratives we discuss the fact stories are there to entertain us and kids think that means make us laugh but I try to simplify it by saying it really means make us feel. That can be laughter, or terror, or infinite sadness. It’s all about connection and truth and all I can hope for is that people invest themselves in Guy’s story so every little moment for him is a big moment for them. I can think of one silent page in this first issue where Owen just took the emotion hinted at in my script and sprayed it all over the page.
I think in that way, the way we deal with emotion, our story is very much more the feels incorporated and accepted Tumblr than it is the emotionally lashing out and drunk racist uncle Facebook, haha.
NH: I like that description of Owen spraying emotion all over the page. One of my favorite artistic moments in the comic is the page where we witness all these horrible things happening to Guy when he’s just walking around, all the result of the interference of his emotional harvesters. I think everyone has had those moments of feeling like the universe is out to get you– and in Guy’s case it kind of is– and Owen conveys so much of that hurt in his rendering of Guy’s facial expressions. What I’m getting at is: where the hell did you find Owen? He seems like an artist who needs a lot of room to breathe, are your scripts for him looser than what you’ve done with other collaborators?
RKL: I’ve been chatting with Owen for years now. And every single day I waited for him to get picked up for something grand and forevermore be outta my league. He’s just so good and he’s truly levelled up on this book. I’m insanely lucky to have a copilot who is this good at emotion. I mean, the book centres around emotion as its core hook, the art had to be on point but Owen took it to another level. To be able to show Guy and his messed up mind through facial acting, but then also drop some serious weird nasty vibes with the Evorah, brings the two disparate ends of this book together in a Gordian knot.
As for my scripts, I’m a PAGE ONE PANEL ONE kinda guy but I nearly always write the panel descriptions in a loose style. I chat with the artist in the script, throw down multiple ideas, because I always have the initial discussion where I state the script is a guideline, and I’ll be sometimes prescriptive and sometimes super loose, and in the end the artist is the person sitting down for a day, and change, making the magic happen, and they usually have a visual arts background. Why would I prescribe panel layout/size/whatever to someone actually qualified to make things look pretty AND most effectively tell our story?
For our first issue, there are times Owen has dropped panels, or added panels. Sometimes I’ll reference a film moment and direct him to the tone of that piece to best get through what I’m trying to do, and then he soaks all that up and just slays it on the page. I have complete trust in Owen and how he’ll make the words into something better. And it feels obvious, almost cliche, to say the above but then I hear people on the con floor who still ‘art monkey’ to their collaborators and I realise some people still don’t get it.
NH: I told another critic that Owen’s art actually reminds me of the animator Bill Plympton. They both utilize very light, watercolor palettes and love to exaggerate facial expressions to maximize humor and emotion. Like Plympton, Owen’s an artist who excels at character “acting,” and it seems that that’s a trait that a lot of your artists– like Loser City’s own Eric Zawadzki— share. When you select artists, is character acting the key trait you look for? What are the key strengths and weaknesses you like to have your artists enhance and correct in your writing respectively? And what are some ways Owen has elevated your game in Negative Space?
RKL: Yeah, can totally see Plympton in there. Owen certainly isn’t using this as his hot reel to land a standard cape book [and I mean that in every positive way you can imagine]. Owen said to me he wants this to feel more European, and the Metabarons is an anchor point for him. I never once told him what style I’d want, Owen and I had been talking long enough that I knew where he wanted to head, and he knew I trusted him every step of the way. Now it’s just been a matter of watching the pages roll in and nodding along with them.
But as far as my collaborative partnership choices go, it’s always a fascinating process to go through because artists don’t always have one specific style, and they could fit a variety of projects and beyond that only want to do a certain variety of projects. So I can’t get a kung fu idea and instantly know who to hunt down and plead to because it’s all so variable. In the end, I go with storytelling ability first. If an artist knows how to make moments flow, keep them clear, and use guttering well then we are going to be friends. Second would be tone, the ability to linger on emotion, to convey scope, to grab the reader by the collar and slam their face hard into the page. If those two are met, I’m usually all on board. Obviously they need to be able to design interesting characters, understand character movement and acting, etc. But if they have storytelling and emotional tone down then that’s the next level game achieved.
Owen certainly knows how to pace a page but it was his ability to emote through the art that made him perfect for this book. Eric Zawadzki on Headspace is an artist who really knows how to control panel movement and have fun with a page – there are some moments he drops in our final issue on that story that are brilliantly manipulated. Eric also lands some supreme emotional moments and sells so much with so little at times. Whereas Sebastian Piriz, the artist in league with Eric who tells the ‘in real life’ aspect of Headspace, is to me much more an action guy but I felt like as the book went on his smaller moments really grew where by the end he really nailed one emotional beat that worked so well.
Looking at some of the stuff I have coming up, I see a wealth of artistic integrity when it comes to character acting and facial art fu. I’m doing things with Jen Vaughn, Craig Bruyn, Alfie Gallagher, Louie Joyce, and Sami Kivela and all of them are turning in these character designs and moments that are so rich and vibrant. They can all do these big moments but that’s nothing if we don’t care about the people in them. I want my characters to be real so you care about all the shitty things I do to them.
Thinking about it now, I realise I do look for artists who will elevate the emotion I bring to the page. I’m rarely writing double page spreads of buildings exploding or armies assembling, it’s usually more quiet moments, thoughtful pauses, or boats made of human bodies in the mist [shout out to Zawadzki for nailing that]. I’m not interested in writing ‘big’ Michael Bay style moments of action, I’d rather have a splash page of Guy at his worst, I’d rather see our lead girl crying in the surf, I’d rather watch the father hug his girl one last time. These are my ‘big’ moments and I’ve been blessed with artists who are more than up for the challenge. Without them, I know these moments would bomb.
As for weaknesses, it’s action sequences. I suck at scripting them and I find nearly all artists just improve them anyway so often I’ll just not panel out that sequence and discuss with the artist the main beats to be present, maybe, and then I let them cut loose. It has worked every time. Really, the more times I let the paddock gate open, the more times I get these amazing pages from artists that are the best things in the issue.
Oh, and I’m trying to constantly get better at removing more and more of my words as I see art come in.
On Negative Space, Owen continually saves my ass by the depth of world building he does. I tell him Rick and Briggs are talking in a room and he goes nuts filling that room with computers, and funky screens, and a wicked blue colour scheme. He’s also spectacular at scope so there are a few moments later in the series where we make Guy small in the face of it all and I knew instantly Owen was going to own those sequences and images. I felt at ease throwing in some weird settings and nasty things for the Evorah to do and be because I knew Owen could handle them and make the audience feel and care about what was on the page.
Tune in tomorrow for the second half of the interview, where we discuss Ryan K. Lindsay’s thoughts on comics process and politics. And be sure to order Negative Space #1, which comes out tomorrow, July 8th.
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