In the future world of The Fuse, half a million people live inside a space station orbiting the Earth. It's a place with its own government, its own crime, and its own detectives. We spoke with The Fuse creator and writer Antony Johnston about why he decided set his police procedural in space.
In knew I had to pick up Image Comics' The Fuse when a friend described it as "Law & Order aboard the space station." The comic, written by Johnston with art by Justin Greenwood, opens with Detective Ralph Dietrich coming aboard the space station just in time to investigate a fresh murder. He's partnered with veteran homicide detective Klem Ristovych to solve the crime, which is tied to some of the station's most powerful players.
The Fuse has completed its first arc, The Russia Shift, which is available in trade paperback. The next arc, Gridlock, starts on November 5th.
We spoke with Johnston over email about developing the world and characters of The Fuse and what's ahead for the series.
What made you decide to set a procedural on a space station?
The space station came first; it's such a great setting for a tense, mystery story. I love closed-environment mysteries, and I've written in that vein before, with stuff like CLOSER (spooky house) and THE COLDEST CITY (Cold War Berlin).
In fact, Midway was initially halfway up a giant space elevator, because those fascinate me. But that idea wasn't working, and I started looking into orbital solutions instead.
So the story kind of grew out of the setting, which I think is a healthy way to go about it. And again, things changed over time; the story was originally from the politicians' point of view — until I suddenly remembered that, duh, a murder mystery is much more interesting from the cops' perspective.
I watch a *lot* of US procedural shows, but it occurred to me it's not a genre we often see in comics — even when we do, there are often capes involved, just to help it sell. That's the sort of realisation that spurs me on, so I became determined to try fusing (sorry) the sci-fi and cops together.
Honestly, I wasn't sure if people would go for it. It's an unusual book for the comics market, no question. But it seems to have gone down well.
You also get a chance to play with those cop tropes: the veteran and the guy who's just been transferred in—but played to the extreme. What do you like about those tropes and what to do you like about twisting it a bit?
I think of Klem and Ralph as "archetypes who break stereotypes."
Yes, they both fit a mold; the bad-tempered veteran and the straight-laced youngster. Yes, we're pushing those tropes and archetypes to extremes — Klem has literally been in this "new world" since its birth, and Ralph literally left his "old world" to journey into this one — but without actually breaking the archetypes. They're still valid.
What we are breaking, though, is stereotypes. An older, non-sexualised lead female character who genuinely doesn't care what other people think about her, and will take no shit from anyone. A young black German who's willing to learn from his older partner (and to shake things up, *he's* the one with secrets to dig up, not the veteran).
There are other, smaller things about them which challenge fictional norms, and there are other characters who break stereotypes. It's a very deliberate decision.
But at the same time, it's all in service to the world, and the story. Nothing in THE FUSE is placed randomly, or on a whim. Everything fits.
Where did the character of Klem come from? She's a fascinating mix of grizzled cop and aging pioneer.
Imagine a parallel universe version of THE FUSE. "Kevin Ristovych" is a grizzled old homicide detective who used to be an engineer, he's grumpy about everything, his ex-wife moved to Mars, and he refuses to retire. Then his new partner "Rachel Dietrich" arrives on station; she's a young, ambitious, and attractive detective who does things by the book, and together oh god I'm falling asleep just typing it out.
But reverse the genders, and suddenly, it's interesting. Suddenly, it's something we *almost never* see in modern fiction.
I say, fuck traditional lead characters; and so does Klem. That's where she comes from.
The Fuse feels like a space-faring version of America: sort of assimilationist, plagued by racial tensions, with a largely ignored homeless population, but with some people who truly believe they can change things for the better. How much of the setting reflects your views on America and life back here on Earth? Is the station a place where you'd personally like to live?
That's a good observation. Some of it is subconscious, I'm sure. Like many non-US authors, America intrigues me both intellectually and emotionally. There are so many great things about US society, but there are also so many problems to overcome, that it's a source of constant inspiration.
And, again like most authors outside the US, I have many friends and colleagues there. Most of my business is with American corporations. I visit it more than any other country. So I'm constantly exposed to its culture and effects, though with an outsider's viewpoint.
But some of what you're talking about is conscious, too. I set out to give Midway City the feel of Manhattan in the '70s-'80s, when New York was struggling with rampant crime and poverty; and societally much of Midway's diverse mix of races and ethnicities, especially in the background, comes from Justin's life in the Bay Area. We kind of spur each other on in that regard, trying very hard to present a true global melting pot.
As for living there… maybe when I was younger. Midway is much like London, New York, Hong Kong, any of those enormous bustling metropolises. If you grow up there, or move there when you're young, you can become truly comfortable with it. Otherwise, it's difficult.
(Of course, the other possibility is to just be very rich. Then you can live anywhere comfortably.)
It's interesting, because you stereotype the Fuse from the beginning as a place people escape to, but it becomes clear that it's much more complicated than that. And you drop us into a point in the Fuse's history when it's increasingly being run by people who grew up there. Is this a significant period of change in the Fuse's history? Will we eventually see a tension between people who grew up there and the new migrants?
I did deliberately choose this point in the station's history, and for a variety of reasons. Not least because it's feasible for an FGU like Klem to still be around; but it's distant enough from its inception that the Residents are becoming more and more comfortable with governing themselves.
That makes for an interesting, dynamic backdrop, with lots of potential for conflict and tension. And there's always been tension on the Fuse between "full Fusion" natives and new Residents. That will never change.
Did you and Justin Greenwood develop the world of the Fuse together? What was the most important thing for you to see visually about the station?
I've been worldbuilding THE FUSE over the past ten years, making notes, doing research, and plotting when I got time or had an interesting idea. The station, and much of its society and history, were all established before Justin came on board.
But Justin loves coming up with that stuff as much as I do, and he's thrown himself into designing the look and feel of the Fuse; from designing buildings, vehicles, and weapons, to creating character visuals and outfits, establishing the "background feel" of the station in crowd shots, and so on. Justin's visual design is crucial to the book.
We also work on a lot of stuff together, because we feel it's important to get visuals right for the story, even if they're only briefly seen — for example, we spent several hours just designing the MCPD badges, which you barely even glimpse in the first story arc!
We've gotten a peek at some aspects of the Fuse in the first arc, but what kind of thing will we see in terms of world-building in the next arc?
"Gridlock", the second case, will take us all over the place — including many locations we'll see for the first time.
'Gridlocking' is the illegal sport of racing modified maglev bikes across the vast solar array dishes on top of the station, so we'll spend some time there. We'll also go back up to level 50, and down into Smacktown in the Level 44 grav tanks. We'll even go over 'the wall', the barrier that separates Midway City from the solar energy collection and maintenance areas at each end of the Fuse.
And the case itself will again expose a cross-section of Fuse society, both high and low, from founding investors to hull engineers, from petty drug dealers to high-stakes businessmen. It's what we do best.