Welcome to Nervous System, where you can learn more about - and get additional content like news, sneak previews, process and behind-the-scenes material (and an occasional complete short story) from ThoughtScape Comics and Lifeformed, the two comic series I write. I’ll also highlight work that has influenced and inspired me.
This time, I figured we could step back to the beginnings of both projects, and also check out a couple of the key writing resources that helped me get started as a comics writer.
ThoughtScape Comics #1 cover by Jenna Cha
ThoughtScape Comics evolved fairly organically, with material and the general vibe/subject matter originating from previously failed ideas, a handful of short stories that I had written or was writing starting in 2017, and a burgeoning obsession with both The Twilight Zone and 2000 AD.
But, since I love failure and feel it is my muse, let’s start with one of the failed ideas, a project called THE DREAD. Around 2017 or 2018, I developed a script and a pitch in which some characters could access/feel the thoughts and emotions of those around them. Here’s the one-page pitch, straight from the doc with no edits. And wow, reading this do I recall how much I hate writing pitches (which is one of ThoughtScape’s other origins… that I’d rather never write another pitch doc ever again)…
by Matt Mair Lowery
A warrior from a post-apocalyptic wasteland and a cop in a peaceful paradise discover that neither of their worlds is what it seems when they team up to rescue a mysteriously powerful girl kidnapped by warmongering extremists.
In the wake of a nuclear war, children are born changed. Most are riddled with an unshakeable hyper-anxiety. The Dread. But some manifest extraordinary abilities. Telekinesis. Telepathy. Some are so powerful that they experience the thoughts and emotions of those around them and go mad. Only a handful of these super-powered extraordinaries can cope with their awesome abilities, maintain their sanity and live with the idea that if they were to lose control, they would become weapons, able to scramble the brains of everyone them.
When a gunman abducts one of these extraordinary children, Claire, from her village in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, Polly, the village’s most hardened and Dread-filled warrior, sets out to save her. She tracks Claire and her kidnapper to Utopia City, a non-violent metropolis walled off from the desolate horrors of the wasteland. Polly clashes with the kidnapper, but he gets the upper hand and disappears with Claire into the city’s concrete and glass canyons. Polly, a fish out of water in this paradise, is taken in by Utopia City Police lieutenant MARIE SANITÉ, who helps her acclimate to this new world. Together they work to track down Claire.
But the kidnapping isn’t the only case the stoic, driven Sanité is investigating. She’s also looking into the first murder in Utopia City in decades. While her boss and mentor, Commissioner Griggs, has asked her to work the murder investigation alone and keep it hush-hush, Sanité can’t keep Polly from getting involved. Soon they’re working together on both cases, running down leads in the futuristic, beautifully strange landscapes of Utopia City. Soon, the disparate threads of the two cases converge, and Sanité and Polly uncover the conspiracy at the root of both crimes. It’s a revelation that shatters their understanding of both of their worlds: For years, a cabal has been harnessing the powers of kidnapped extraordinary children to keep Utopia City’s citizens free of The Dread, redirecting it into the ravaged, warlord-ruled wasteland.
Fury Road crashes into Blade Runner then gets psychically body-slammed by Akira in THE DREAD, a sci-fi thriller about two women confronting a conspiracy rooted in the violence and inequity that runs rampant in our world today.
I was pretty sold on this whole story and concept, wrote at least three issues worth of scripts, and worked with a couple great artists on it, including doing some test pages with Sebastián Píriz. Here are a couple examples of that effort.
Ultimately, though, I had no takers after pitching The Dread around some (no fault of any art or artist for sure… the rejections came at the pitch doc and script-only stage). So, the idea languished in the back of my mind for a couple years. Ultimately, this seeming failure was a good thing, because the whole “access/feel the thoughts and emotions“ component AND the notion of a sort of cop character at the center of the story evolved over time in my subconscious and became the springboard for ThoughtScape 2319 and its main character, Thought and Information Services Collection Officer Odessa Query. And when it all decided to resurface, it came fully-formed and in a glorious rush and I wrote the first four parts of TS 2319 in like three days. So, the lesson is to know when to walk away but also don’t throw anything away, I guess.
Lifeformed #1, written by me and co-created and drawn by Cassie Anderson and published by Scout Comics, hit comic store shelves this past August, but I began the project around 2013/2014, and actually wrote the script for the issue in 2016, so it’s pretty much my first complete comic book effort. You can check out the full script here in PDF. The main thing to note with the Issue #1 script is that it was truly a co-effort from me and Cassie, who really broke down visually/into panels the central alien invasion action sequence when we initially put our pitch together… what I’d given her early on was an extremely screenplay style script with no panel breakdowns, and when we went to do the full issue, I mostly just reverse engineered those bits to create the script for the sake of editorial review/approval.
Script aside, Lifeformed was born out of my desire to create something in the genre I love that I could discuss and read with my kids, and also to see if I was cut out for making comics. That said, the story gestated for quite a while and took many forms, including, initially, a TV pilot script and series bible, before I realized that comics was the right avenue for it. Stories (and brains) are weird like this sometimes. Further testament to keeping an open mind and letting projects tell you what they need to be, even if it takes a while.
When I was first (re)educating myself on writing, a handful of materials helped me find my writing sea legs in a very practical, words-on-the-page sense. The creative writing I’d done eons ago in college as part of year-long program deal was extremely focused on finding one’s voice (it was the 90s… if you weren’t there you might be better off for it, hahaha). Voice is of course very important, but it made things like writing action, plotting, etc. feel like tough codes to crack, especially since I was generally rusty on the writing front anyway.
Here are a few essential resources that showed me the way (and that I continue to return to):
When I was first trying to understand writing visually from a pure craft perspective, David Mamet’s On Directing Film was THE BEST thing I read. It is brief, it illustrates all its concept wonderfully, and it is worth reading repeatedly. I think I’ve read it all the way through three times at this point. You can also just pick it up and read a section and feel refreshed and ready to tackle some grand writing challenge you are facing. This book is available for like $6, and it’s worth at least an entire year of college creative writing class tuition.
When I was trying to outline the entire first arc of Lifeformed and REALLY struggling, James Cameron’s treatment for the first Terminator movie saved me. Since Terminator is one of my favorite films and I know it extremely well, being able to map that existing knowledge to Cameron’s words describing all those scenes on the page was incredibly instructive. I think even if you don’t have this movie more or less memorized this document is a wonderful tool, especially when you pair it with the script and the film: watch, read, take it apart, break it down, etc. Whatever you think of the movie, in each of these incarnations it is lean and mean storytelling on display that you can certainly learn from. You can find the treatment and the script at By The Lens.
Finding comic scripting reference was a bit tough back in the day. I started Lifeformed around 2011, and there were of course just fewer books on the subject than there are now, and fewer online resources for comic scripts. BUT there was the Comics Experience Script Archive, and I tried to get a good sense of how Bendis, Vaughn and the like wrote their scripts there. Ultimately, as you’ll see in the Lifeformed script, I settled for a while on a very Bendis-like screenplay format. I’ve definitely moved toward more of a Vaughn approach since (and also moved from scripting in Final Draft to using Google Docs). Whatever format I use, I’m always blown away by how much Mamet’s instruction applies to comics, and how critical it was to helping me make the shift into thinking/writing visually.
The Sorcerer soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. Trust me, put it on, and on repeat and things will flow out of you, writing wise. Credit where credit is due, I believe I was tipped off to this through an Ed Brisson tweet.
Let’s wrap this up to a look ahead to ThoughtScape Comics #2. Check out this gorgeous splash page inking in progress from the amazing Karl Slominski, for Ex Post Facto: A Dash Varrick Misadventure Part 2. STUNNING, and the page isn’t even done yet.
Have a great weekend, and check out the new Iceage record Seek Shelter. It rules.