Mark Waid's wonderful comic The Unknown shows what happens when the world's greatest detective turns her attention to what happens after we die. We talk to Waid about the series, and have the complete first issue for you to read.
The Unknown feels similar to television shows like Warehouse 13 or Fringe - Rational people investigating the irrational. Did you have this mild semi-X-Files-revival zeitgeist in mind when coming up with the idea behind the series?
Nope. The Unknown was created largely in one night, in one telephone call with my friend Christine Boylan, a stage and TV writer whose talent far eclipses mine. I was venting to Christine that I knew I wanted to do another detective/impossible crime series LIKE Ruse, but other than switching up the master/apprentice genders, I didn't see anything that would make it even remotely new or intriguing. "A female Sherlock Holmes" isn't the most original pitch in the world if that's all there is to it. But Christine wisely pushed me on the question of, "Okay, what kind of crimes would she be solving?" and I shot back with "If I'm gonna throw a new detective in the mix, the only mystery I want to write about is the biggest, most unsolveable mystery of all, which is what happens when we die. HEY, WAIT A MINUTE." A few seconds later, my lead character's motivation—that she has only six months to live—fell into place, and the next morning, I had my new series to pitch to BOOM! publisher Ross Richie: "WHATEVER REMAINS" — as in the Arthur Conan Doyle quote.
Ross loved the concept, hated the name. I think it was editor Matt Gagnon who pitched out "The Unknown," and this is a good example of the reasons we have for keeping that guy in his job. Another is that Matt's the one who found our spectacular artist, Minck Oosterveer, about whom I cannot say enough complimentary things.
Just so we'd all have a good, mutual understanding of my vision, I typed out a quick one-sheet, and at the top, I wrote "Doc Savage by way of David Lynch" as a yardstick for tone—fast-paced pulp adventure with a genuinely unsettling air to it and without the familiarity of the traditional pulp-adventure structure that's so ingrained in all of us who read or write comics.
I'm amused and unsurprised at the Doc Savage reference, because the "Science Detective" subtitle that Doc's magazine had has been one I've used when talking about Catherine before. She really seems like a descendant to both Holmes and Savage, and Doyle serves as a Watson/Johnny sidekick. Was that an intentional nod to the familiar pulp detective set-up, or was it just easier and more fun to write exposition as conversation, instead of monologue or narration?
I write good conversation, so that just makes it more fun to script. Dialogue is one of the easiest ways to get character conflict across immediately in comics. Plus, having written hundreds of comics stories using first-person narration and having read ten thousand more, I'm bored to tears by the device and haven't seen it used well, uniquely, or suprisingly in years and years. It's very much become the tool of the Lazy Writer because it's so easy to fortify the page with giant, tedious blocks of first-person text in the voice of someone I haven't learned enough about yet to give a rat's ass about. ZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzz.
On the surface of it, The Unknown can be taken as a science vs. faith story - Catherine Allingham seeking to categorically define what is (should be?) a personal, spiritual experience. It's more complicated than that (Doyle's "You sound like you WANT it to be true," in the second issue seeming like the core of the story, at least for me), but do you have a particular horse in this race? Where do you fall on the science/faith scale, or is working that out that point (for you) of the book, beyond telling a good story?
Working that out IS part of the point of the book. If you come into any creative project without questions, you're gonna bore yourself and it'll show on the page. While it may not show on the page, I probably did more research on this series than on anything I've handled since, well, Ruse, my last "weird, impossible crimes" book (and my favorite fiction subgenre to read). And, like Catherine, I have a very irrational, almost romantic need for there to be some form of afterlife, because the idea that we're all just sophisticated electrochemical batteries who'll eventually run down is too horrible for me to accept. So, like Catherine, I want it to be true that there's something beyond this. But also like Catherine, I'm one of the least spiritual human beings you'll ever come across; the phrase "faith in a higher power" is like nails on a blackboard to me, partly because my life and my interests are defined by science and hard knowledge, and partly (I'm sure) because as a kid growing up in the Bible Belt, I had a lot of first-hand experience with seeing how often "faith in a higher power" becomes an excuse to not take responsibility for your own decisions. (That's a generalization, and I know that, but we're talking about the programming I received as a kid, which is hard to shake.)
I do believe that any sort of electromagnetic energy that can be measured beyond the moment of death is, by the definition of energy, eternal. But I cop to the fact that calling it a "soul" and presuming it sustains our consciousness in any form is, to put it kindly, a leap. I need to be shown something irrefutable; I confess that my eagerness to WANT to be shown something irrefutable is as much an act of faith as is attending the church down the street—except that, ultimately, as science marches on where faith never does, we get closer all the time to proving (or disproving) something.
Or, Graeme, to put it all way more succinctly than that—on a personal level, I have little if any use for faith. Therefore, so does Catherine. Unlike Catherine, however, I'm far less judgmental of those who use faith as their engine to get through the day.
When writing a story like this, do you have to keep your personal beliefs in check, then? If the writing of the story is in some way you exercising and exploring your personal struggle between fact and faith, and you have an inclination away from the faith part of that argument, do you find yourself fighting a tendency to end the story with a variation on "No soul for you, ha ha ha"?
Not in any thunderbolt moment of epiphany, but what I write very often helps me refocus my own attitudes and arguments—and, in doing so, sometimes shows me more clearly the fallacies I've been suffering under.
How much does real science (or real scientific curiosity, at least) feed into this series? There may not be a scale as sensitive as the Faderbauers', but not for want of trying, after all. On a series like The Unknown - versus something like Irredeemable, or The Flash - do you feel constrained by the world as we know it (even if you do extrapolate slightly)?
"Constrained," is, to me, the exact antonym of the descriptor I'd use. Real science is the greatest, most exciting springboard I have available to me as a writer, and I don't feel the least bit constrained by it. When Catherine gives her big speech in issue two about the history of assigning weight to souls, that's all fact, every word. So is the conceit that the only thing holding modern science back from building a Faderbauer apparatus is financing. The Catholic Church gets in the way, it's said—I've read report after report that funding for afterlife research is (shall we say) "interfered with" by religious officials who claim it to be a "waste of money." (Feel free to substitute the words "danger to our fundaments" for "waste of money." I do.)
Anyway, even with Flash or Irredeemable, I try to stay somewhere in the general ballpark of recognizable science (outside of the standard superhero "gimmes" that a guy can run at near-lightspeed or sink the island of Singapore). It just gives the work a verisimilitude that's integral to helping readers connect with the story.
Do you keep up with science news? Is there part of your day that's spent reading New Scientist's website and thinking "Man, I could tell a GREAT story about THAT"?
Always. Constantly. It's part of the morning routine, surfing the science sites and bookmarking interesting phenomena for later use. In fact, I probably spend more time reading that sort of material as a hobby than I do anything and everything else put together.
There's a follow-up series, The Unknown: The Devil Made Flesh, already solicited for later this year. Without spoiling the end of the first series, is The Unknown an open-ended concept for you? As a reader, I'm happy to know that there's more coming, but also kind of worried that this means that there's either going to be no climax to the first series or else a deus ex machina ending that'll see Catherine's illness suddenly healed or magically in remission (Assuming, of course, that Catherine survives the first series).
Trust me, when Ross said he wanted to do a follow-up series, I thought the same thing: "What now? Do I say she has FIVE months to live? And, oh, yeah, didn't I promise myself and the readers that she'd find an ANSWER to the mystery of the afterlife, seeing as how any orangutan with a keyboard can write a detective story in which the detective DOESN'T solve the case?" I can't say much of anything without spoiling the last issue, but the solution to all those problems came in a giant, sudden, totally unexpected bolt of inspiration that, in one second, turned what was a nice little four-issue story into the potential foundation for a whole mythology—which was never the plan, BUT I'LL TAKE IT. I will say this, though—there are no cheats in issue four, no deus ex machina cures, no magic wands. Nor in Series Two, Issue One—the first words of which are, "One Year Later."
Which means, as per your parenthetical comment, that you are assuming maybe too much. (God, I hate having to write Previews Catalogue copy four months ahead of time.)
The Unknown #4 is released on Wednesday. A hardcover collection of the first series follows next month, accompanied by the first issue of The Unknown: The Devil Made Flesh. For a chance to read the entire first issue of The Unknown, click here.