This week we take a break from our usual reviews to discuss a book that had the comic world in the palm of it's hand back in 2011. It was two years ago this week that Nonplayer #1 hit comic shelves, and achieved a level of buzz most comic creators would dream about. One would expect at this point that we would have hardback collected editions on our shelves, and be eagerly anticipating what’s next from creator Nate Simpson, but two years have passed and we're still waiting for the second issue.
I want to preface everything below by saying that I am not writing this to call out creator Nate Simpson. In fact, I'm rooting for him. Nonplayer #1 was released during a very good time for Image Comics (hell, it's always a good time for Image Comics these days), there was a wave of interesting books such as Blue Estate, Butcher Baker Righteous Maker, Green Wake etc. I had been thinking about some of these books recently, and it reminded me to check in on the status of Nonplayer. It also really got me thinking about the nature of creativity, and the pact creators have with their fans. In the age of the internet we get reactions and commentary from all sides of the spectrum, and I really am curious about what the Mania commenters think. Nonplayer presented me with a perfect point of reference to explore all this, but hopefully not at the book's expense.
Nonplayer is about a not-too-distant future where a good chunk of society spends a good chunk of their time playing a full immersion MMORPG called “Warriors of Jarvath". Our heroine, Dana Stevens, spends most of her time in-game, which is no surprise since her reality involves a nagging family and tamale deliveries. During one of her playing sessions she encounters an odd glitch involving a non-player character, and suddenly things in the game feel not quite right. The reality bleed between games and our everyday lives has been fertile ground for awhile, and has kicked into even higher gear since Nonplayer was released. What separates the book from similar fare are its outstanding visuals and interesting ideas. I don't meant to take anything away from Nate Simpson as a writer, but you could feel that it wasn’t necessarily the panel to panel story that made everyone sit up and take notice, but the overall feel of a new world with new twists and ideas to explore. Even outside the game, Dana straps on a helmet that re-skins the world around her to a visual genre more to her liking. What no one will ever take away from Nate Simpson are his skills as an artist, the man has a breathtaking style that you won't soon forget. Somewhere between Geoff Darrow, Frank Cho and the legendary Moebius lies the clean lines and amazing detail of Simpson's style. His art can literally feel as immersive as the game our protagonist plays, and sealed the deal for the instant zeitgeist Nonplayer achieved, and deservedly so.
Nate Simpson's day job is at video game company Pop Cap, so the content of Nonplayer made perfect sense, and the buzz was heightened. Someone of Simpson's talent also coming from an insider's perspective was a juicy proposition. Nonplayer was christened a hit before it even reached shelves, and the fact that it delivered on the hype propelled it that much further. Reviews were through the roof, and it was earmarked early for end of the year lists and awards. I don't want to tread too far into hyperbole, but Simpson had achieved that rarified air indie creators truly dream of. He had made it, he had broke in, and interest was coming from everywhere. A few months later Warner Bros. acquired the film rights, Nonplayer was a bonafide success before the story was even finished. To be honest, most of us expected Nonplayer to ship a bit late, we've been around the block enough times to know art that detailed takes time, and is worth waiting for. Not to mention the pressure all the attention and success puts on the creator to deliver a second issue every bit as good as the first. The book kept slipping, every week we would check the new release list hoping to see Nonplayer #2, but it was never there. By the end of the summer the lateness was palpable, and Simpson hit an obstacle worse than any deadline- He was in a bicycle accident, and in his own words ““Every bone connecting my right arm to my torso was broken.” Of course, everyone felt absolutely gutted, and none more so than Simpson himself. Would we every see the continuation of his story in comic book form, or would it slowly slip away into the cinematic universe?
Lateness is nothing new to comics. Hell, the original Image boys almost made it a sport- who could ship their books the latest without completely alienating their fans? I think Savage Dragon was the only image book to ship on time back in the day, the others were running at a clip of four issues a year if we were lucky. Wizard Magazine even ran a half serious article where they literally tried to find out where Dale Keown lived so they could knock on his door and ask him when we could expect Pitt #2. Lateness isn't exclusive to the smaller publishers, it hits the big boys too, hence the ever present fill-in artist. It's tough, because unless you can walk a mile in each other's shoes, there will always be a disconnect between the fans and creators when it comes to the creative process. Some fans just don't understand why creators can't finish a book "Why does it take you two years to draw one issue?" The problem is doing something creative is not like taking your car to the mechanic, there's not one solution to the problem that can be fixed in a few hours, comic creators can't just order replacement parts for their creativity. The problem gets exacerbated when you start comparing the work ethic of different creators. There are some artists out there who can crank out multiple books simultaneously, and they make it look easy. Seriously, in the early 90's I think Ron Lim was drawing twelve different books a month for Marvel, and each of them featured fifty different characters. Some people just have that ability, but when fans use that as a litmus for how things should be, it just causes that disconnect. I'm not trying to put the onus squarely on the readers, creators absolutely need to be held accountable, they started something that the fans invested their hard earned money in, and in doing so created a level of trust that the creator would honor with further work. There is a lot that can be done with the way books are created an solicited, comics are legendary for announcing books and ship dates before the scripts and art are finished. If everything was completed before a book is unveiled (a strategy being employed more and more), things would be so much smoother. Of course, this doesn't exactly apply to indie books, they are often holding on by a wing and a prayer, and fans find themselves at the mercy of any number of outside forces that prevent the next issue of the little engine that could from reaching their hands.
The reason I'm rooting for Simpson is not just that I think he is an enormously talented creator, but because I can identify with him as well. I too have a creative project that has lingered for far too long, and every day that goes by it gets harder and harder to go back to, because every passing day makes the pressure of delivering something good, something worthy, that much harder. Believe me, the things that go through your head, the level of doubt and fear that continue to mount, can be creative black hole. You feel like you have to deliver the most spectacular thing in the world, or else it won't meet expectations. In your mind that's the reason why everyone thinks it's late- because it's so amazing it took you that long to deliver, and when you eventually put out that next piece, and it's not an earth shattering revelation, just par for the course of your story, you imagine that people will leave you and your creation in droves. Believe me, no amount of disappointed or angry forum posts can compare to how the artist actually feels, because it is literally the worst feeling in the world. You find out exactly how the term "monkey on your back" came to be, and it's tough to get that little bastard off.
I don't mean to make excuses, but there will always be hold ups in the creative process with truly talented and interesting artists. You always want to put your best foot forward, and the longer you wait to do it the harder it is to pull that foot out of the mud. I'm rooting for Nate Simpson because I think his creativity is worth waiting for, and I implore you to track down a copy of Nonplayer #1. From his blog it sounds like things are finally going well, and his candid posts prove he knows exactly the position he is in. A little accountability always helps with the wait.
Here's looking forward to Nonplayer #2.
Joel Rickenbach is a curator of cult cinema at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA, and can be heard every week talking film, TV and other geekery on the You’ve got GEEK podcast. Follow him onTwitter and hilarity will no doubt ensue.