Kickstarter campaigns can attract a lot of attention, and often it can be hard to tell which ones are truly something special. But when one is featured on the Onion’s AV Club, and is publicly backed and tweeted about by Neil Gaiman, and becomes a Kickstarter staff pick, it becomes pretty clear that something spectacular is going on. I took a few minutes to catch up with the writer of Asphodel: A Mythic Space Opera, Alex Kane!
GeekMom Mel: Welcome, Alex! Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself?
Alex Kane: Thank you for having me! I guess I’m mostly a short-story writer whose work falls under the broader category of science fiction, with a bit of fantasy and horror thrown in when the mood strikes. I’m also the managing editor of The Critical Press, where I copyedit and typeset books of film criticism and cultural commentary, as well as a submissions editor for Uncanny Magazine and an executive producer on the Star Wars documentary The Prequels Strike Back.
GMM: How did you get into writing? What has your path looked like so far?
AK: In college, I discovered there was a whole world of science fiction beyond movies, games, and media tie-ins–Star Wars novels were an early gateway drug for me–and also started collecting comics, like the Dark Horse Knights of the Old Republic series by John Jackson Miller. A few years later, working full-time as a retail banker, comics would become my salvation. But it was the discovery of voices like Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Tobias Buckell, and books like King’s On Writing, that led me to try my hand at getting some short fiction published.
I’d written a really awful novel at thirteen, and had generally thought of myself as a writer for years, churning out attempts at a sequel and a number of embarrassing short stories, but by the time I was nineteen it had grown into an obsession. I made my first professional sale to Digital Science Fiction in 2011, while I was still in college, and soon thereafter earned a finalist status in the Writers of the Future contest, attended the 2013 Clarion West Writers Workshop, and made a handful of additional pro fiction sales, all the while putting pressure on myself to get better.
GMM: You have a new comic, Asphodel, up for funding on Kickstarter. What made you decide to make Asphodel a comic rather than a regular story?
AK: After Clarion West, the world started to look a lot different. I saw that a career in publishing meant making sacrifices, leaping at the first sign of an opportunity, and having the courage to really give it your absolute best shot–something that just isn’t possible when you’re working a job you hate, getting bullied by micromanaging coworkers over the phone, and having to smile through the abuse of yet another rightfully angry customer whom you can’t possibly satisfy.
That year of soul-scarring limbo saw the loss of both my paternal grandparents, a few months apart from one another, and almost zero fiction writing, despite all I’d learned at Clarion West the prior summer. But for one miserable year, I glimpsed the power of the comics medium with maximum clarity: Every day at work, even when management informed us that we were understaffed and not allowed to leave the building during lunch breaks, comic books allowed me ten to twenty minutes of blissful, absolute escape–physically, I was stuck in the break room, phones ringing all around me, but mentally? I was in the world of Eric Powell’s The Goon, or Gotham City, or some galaxy far, far away, immune to the horrors of the inevitable adulthood that lay ahead of me.
The day I put in my two weeks’ notice, I felt like Andy Dufresne crawling out the other side and getting baptized in the rain of renewed possibility. Comics had saved my life, far as I could tell, and I figured I owed it to myself, creatively, to try my hand at writing in the medium myself.
GMM: Did you know New Horizons would be reaching Pluto right during your Kickstarter? How does it feel to have a new vision of a place that you have written about?
AK: I had no idea. The story that became issue one of Asphodel began life at Clarion West in summer 2013, as a sketch I turned in for critique by Samuel R. Delany and my seventeen brilliant classmates, and I spent a year revising it in prose form, trying to get it to work–but ultimately it’s a story too big for just a short story. A novel series, or creator-owned comic, is really the best way to do justice to all the big ideas and worldbuilding.
Since it’s sort of the “crowd favorite” among the manuscripts I wrote at the workshop, I’ve made up my mind that it’s a story that deserves to be finished and done proper justice. The New Horizons images, and the incredible timing of that mission with our Kickstarter campaign, feels like only one more reason to get excited about this story I’ve spent more than a year turning into a comic book. It’ll be really useful for researching later issues, if and when the time comes.
GMM: Can you give us a quick overview of Asphodel?
AK: Asphodel is an underworld myth for space opera fans. Whenever you see a “god” of some sort in the realm of science fiction, it’s often in the form of a technologically advanced alien race, or an A.I., and I wanted to play with the concepts in Michio Kaku’s books, giving humanity a shot at godhood for once. But the characters are the real focus, and I think that really comes across well in Gale’s art style, which more closely resembles the work of cartoonists like Bryan O’Malley and Genndy Tartakovsky than mainstream comics artists. The result feels quiet and intimate, despite the galactic scope of the worldbuilding and the postwar aftermath that Vic and Sedna are caught up in.
GMM: What was it like to work with an artist? How well did she capture your vision?
AK: Gale Galligan contacted me after I posted a call for artists on a Facebook group for comics creators, and it was clear right away that she stood out for both the distinctive, professional artwork in her portfolio and her enthusiasm for the project. She really understands the kind of story I’ve wanted to tell for two years, and she’s a fantastic collaborator. It’s been amazing.
GMM: Neil Freaking Gaiman backed your Kickstarter, and then tweeted about it. That must have felt awesome.
AK: Neil’s so cool! He was my teacher during the second week of Clarion West two years ago, and he’s been an incredible source of inspiration and support. He was, by the way, not the easiest teacher to please–he really tore apart my writing piece by piece, and stitching it back together has proved to be one of the most crucial stages of my development as an artist. He really, really knows his stuff, and while I wouldn’t recommend being Neil Gaiman’s “teaching moment” to anyone looking to have their ego massaged, I will say that my writing’s benefited enormously from it. Having Neil on board with the Kickstarter and helping get the word out has really given me a nice boost in visibility, and I just love the guy. No one understands stories like he does.
GMM: What are some of your other interests? Tell us about your geek cred ;).
AK: I’m a huge Star Wars nerd, in case there was any doubt, and I play a lot of videogames. I’ve literally logged about a thousand hours in Bungie’s shared-world FPS, Destiny, and I tend to watch just about every Marvel, DC, and sci-fi movie that comes to theaters. I’m that guy who’s destroying pop culture–though I also voice my criticisms about science fiction and film pretty frequently, which I think makes up for it a little. At the end of the day, I always feel like there are too many comics in my stack, too many books on my shelf, too many movies I haven’t see and games I haven’t played yet. There’s no right or wrong way to be a geek–said the guy who’s never seen an episode of Doctor Who or Firefly–but there’s really a lot of great art being made, despite what jaded cynics on the Internet would have us all believe. Feel free to dismiss all my opinions on this if you must, though: I am one of the guys behind The Prequels Strike Back.
GMM: What were some of your inspirations growing up? Do you see ways these are reflected in your work now?
AK: The Empire Strikes Back, Attack of the Clones, Knights of the Old Republic. Halo 2! Really, I think most of my work reflects my love for all these flawed but richly drawn universes. I grew up watching space opera and playing videogames with spaceships and robots in them, so my most fruitful creative periods are usually spent developing worlds that feel a little like George Lucas’s, though mine tend to be a lot darker–more Blade Runner-meets-Alien in tone and feel. I’ll never forget the first time I read 2001: A Space Odyssey, or playing Halo 2 on day one.
Every time I move away from the genre, it’s not long before a book like Leviathan Wakes or Dark Orbit, or a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy, comes along to remind me how much life’s really left in it. Space opera has begun to grow up a little, thanks to some of the great SF writers of today. John Scalzi in particular has done a great service in making it more accessible.
GMM: So what’s up next for you? Any big plans in the works?
AK: I’ve gotten a little bit too comfortable with short fiction, and I think I’m at risk of repeating myself if I don’t take a bit of a break from it, so the next thing is either a novel or continuing the story of Asphodel with a limited series. Certainly the world of Asphodel is my focus for the foreseeable future. I have a horror novel I’m also working on, but you can never tell what’s going to happen with a particular project. If sales don’t lead to further issues of the comic book, the most likely course of action will be to write a novel set in that universe. I’ve pitched a nonfiction book on my favorite videogame, as well, and I’m still waiting to hear back from the publisher. It’s been a busy year, but I hope next year will be a whole lot busier.
GMM: Anything else you’d like to add?
AK: I’d love for anyone reading this to take a look at the Kickstarter and leave comments with any questions or feedback they might have about the comic. Asphodel represents two years’ worth of work, and it’s a real passion project for me. It has been so heartwarming and inspiring to see the reception the Kickstarter has gotten, but it’d be great if more people could share the project, and this interview, and help to get the word out–we’ve still got a long ways to go to reach our minimum funding goal, and the comic simply won’t happen if we don’t hit it.
GMM: Thanks so much for spending time with us, Alex, and best of luck with your Kickstarter!
Alex Kane is the managing editor of The Critical Press, a publisher of books on film and culture, as well as an executive producer of the Star Wars documentary The Prequels Strike Back. He also serves as a first reader for Uncanny Magazine and works full-time as a freelance copyeditor. A graduate of the 2013 Clarion West Writers Workshop, his fiction has appeared in more than a dozen venues, including the Exigencies anthology from Curbside Splendor’s Dark House imprint, edited by Richard Thomas, and he is the writer of the creator-owned comic Asphodel. His reviews and criticism have been published in Foundation, The New York Review of Science Fiction, SF Signal, and Omni, among other places. He lives in west-central Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @alexjkane.