Homeworld Bound: Mark Wheatley on Webcomic The Return of the Human

By , Columnist

As might have become obvious by now, I’m a huge fan of Mark Wheatley’s comics. His latest project—The Return of the Human, which is now running online as part of the first slate of titles from a major new webcomics consortium—is a perfect example of why I’m so intrigued with his work. It’s a graphic novel that incorporates the best aspects of the past even as it embraces some of the more interesting and expansive possibilities offered by the current trends and technologies available today.

The result is an original yet highly accessible story, an original graphic novel that looks towards the future of the medium even as it honors its roots as populist entertainment.

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How would you describe Return of the Human to those who haven’t heard about it yet?

Well, we have a format description and another one for the content. The format pitch was “The history of an intergalactic war, told in the style of a Ken Burns documentary.” I was looking for a way to tell a story on an epic scale, a way that would not break my back with all the illustration work. So the emulation of a documentary style opened up all sorts of unusual and exciting possibilities.

The content pitch is “Return of the Human: A thousand years after humanity abandoned the poisoned Earth to build an empire across the stars, one man returns. Lance McCoy finds the Mother Planet is more than anyone suspected. But will it be enough to save his Galactic Civilization from a relentless attack that seems designed to exterminate mankind?”

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Well, where did this project get its start? Is this something that you came up with and then brought JC Vaughn in on it, did he bring it to you, or …?

I approached Jeff about scripting a space opera project I wanted to set up at Heavy Metal magazine. I gave Jeff a shopping list of visuals and subjects I wanted to deal with and then he went off and tried to make sense of it. When he came back he had the bare bones of the idea laid out. But at that point he was thinking of telling the story in a typical graphic novel form.

But there was a tone of voice Jeff had used in his written pitch in one of his early paragraphs that reminded me of the voice-overs in Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. So I started pushing for us to tell the story in that documentary style. And Jeff was quick to jump on that idea too.

So, instead of telling the story scene by scene, we are able to tell the story from the point 20 years after the end of the galactic war. We’re working as if we are pulling from historical events, photos, videos, interviews, artifacts, letters from home, advertisements, sketches, personal accounts and anything else we can think of. The approach makes everything we are doing seem fresh and new.

Of course, while we thought this would end up in Heavy Metal, we were really working hard to make it seem like a documentary even though it was just a few pages in each issue of a print mag. But even though Heavy Metal accepted the series, they hit some financial bumps in the road, like a lot a print publications these days. So we moved on to the digital format of Aces Weekly that came along within days of hitting the Heavy Metal wall. And the digital option proved to be the final, transformative ingredient to turn Return of the Human into something exceptional in my working experience.

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So how are you working together on the series? What kind of scripts—outline or fully fleshed out—are you working from?

Jeff and I are working out the plot and beats of the story together. Then he writes an outline with suggestions of artifacts and images for me to use in telling the story. Then I try to imagine that I’m a documentary filmmaker desperate to find images to string together in an understandable story. And I mentally dig through archives and historical records and see what turns up. The result is a layered storytelling style we had not expected. Because Jeff is writing the story as it happened. But I’m telling it visually with what I am able to “find.”

So if a character is described in one event—I might use a “photo” of him from another point in his life that relates and enriches the described event—because there would not be a photo of the historical moment Jeff wrote about available in the archives. See, I’m playing these mental games to tell the story, but when you read it, well, it just makes sense.

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In some ways this strikes me as a bit of a departure from a lot of your previous work, in that it’s a story told on that larger canvass that all space opera is projected upon, even though it obviously still shares those pulp roots that so many of your projects share. True, or am I misreading it?

You are absolutely right, Bill. The pulp roots are there. But I think it becomes a bit elevated because we are using the narrative tone of the documentary rather than the lurid, overwrought language of the pulps that I love so much. It really is the difference between the lurid Civil War trading card set and the classy Ken Burns Civil War film series. Same subject, and even a lot of the same imagery in both, but a different style of presenting the material.

Well, how important is the human element in the story—and the individual characters—to the story, and to your depictions of the action?

The title is Return of the Human. We use the word human in the title for a lot of reasons. And one of them was our desire to get deep inside the hearts and minds of the people who have to live through this incredible war. We have three main characters and a supporting cast of millions.

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Now, this series has been an integral part of the rollout of a major new webcomic portal, the aforementioned Aces Weekly. What can you tell us about that new site and the good folks behind it?

Okay, here are some amazing details. We launch, the site went live, on September 30. Aces Weekly features six comic strips every week for seven weeks. This will form a volume. Aces Weekly will be published in a series of volumes. Once a volume is published there's a two-week break before the next seven-week volume starts.

I know it sounds complicated but it's worth it. This whole thing has been put together by David Lloyd of V for Vendetta fame. David is the publisher and Bambos Georgiou is the editor.

Now here's the part that should blow the minds of fans everywhere: The creators involved include David Lloyd, Kyle Baker, John McCrea, Phil Hester, Mark Wheatley, JC Vaughn, Steve Bissette, Alain Mauricet, Alexandre Tefenkgi, Billy Tucci, Herb Trimpe, David Hitchcock, Dave Jackson, Dave Hine, David Leach, Marc Hempel, Lew Stringer, Colleen Doran, Bill Sienkiewicz, Carl Critchlow, Henry Flint, James Hudnall, Val Mayerik, Shane Oakley, Esteban Hernandez, Paul Maybury, Dylan Teague, Dan Christensen, Mychailo Kazybrid, Phil Elliott, Shaky Kane, Arvell Jones, Rory Walker, Hunt Emerson, Roger Langridge, Kev Hopgood, Ferg Handley & Mindy McPeak, Yishan Li, Algesiras, Paul Peart, Ben Dickson, Gavin Mitchell, Antonio Bifulco, Giuseppe Rungetti, Antonio Baretti, Louis Shaeffer, Warren Pleece and Batton Lash. That's just the list so far. Aces Weekly creators come from UK, USA, Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, China, the Philippines and New Zealand. We're very international.

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A seven issue subscription to Aces Weekly costs £6.99/$9.99/€7.99. We have no plans to make printed books from this material. The comics in Aces Weekly will be exclusive to the digital format, by contract, for a period of years. And in the case of Return of the Human, my approach to the story is designed for the digital format. It just will not work as it is, in print. I've managed to make myself as excited about creating comics as I was on the day I started waaay back in the 20th century!

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So, how did you two get involved with David and company, and what made their site the right place to publish Return of the Human? I mean, why not just publish it yourself, as you’ve done in the past with your Sunny Fundays initiative?

One thing I learned early on at Insight Studios is that the real power in our industry is in the creative minds of the creators. When we band together and take responsibility for our own work, we are a true force to be reckoned with. And I think you can see from the list I just gave you, the Aces Weekly team is a super-powered band of creators. And we have gathered together because of our mutual respect for each other’s works. That’s how David hooked me into this.

I’ve been an admirer of his work going back to Halls of Horror. When I started reading Warrior, V for Vendetta just blew my mind. He is a true visual stylist and a remarkable storyteller. And he has put this army of creators together as a way for us to make the world safe for creator owned comics! And frankly, looking at that list again, I feel like the cheap house in an expensive neighborhood.

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How long will Return of the Human run? Is this a finite story, or is this something that you could easily see doing for the foreseeable future?

Jeff and I are creating characters and a world that are rich and deep. I’m sure there are many stories to be told in that context. But Return of the Human is planned as a single story — the documentary of a terrible war that takes place far in our future. There is a beginning, middle and an amazing end. Our first book starts in the first issue of Aces Weekly.  We have two more books of The Return of the Human to complete the story. The first seven weeks are complete and Jeff and I are well into the second book now.

What are you getting from this particular project that you might not be reaping from your many other efforts?

Well, I’m getting to work with my talented friend, Jeff Vaughn! And I’m having a lot of stimulating fun working out all the possibilities for telling stories in a purely digital form. It is much the same as print, and entirely new at the same time. I’m able to do so much more, far more than I ever suspected until I jumped in with both feet. And I’m very happy to discover that I’m not losing anything from print except, possibly, that smell of paper and printer’s ink!

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Speaking of your other work, how is the Les Vamps book coming along? And have you set a publication date, or is that forthcoming?

We had a little conflict with the Aces launch. We were thinking we would put out Lez Vamps on October 1. But having Aces launch on September 30 got in the way, so we are pushing Lez Vamps a little further into October. Russ Rogers is doing the final edits on the book and I’ve got most of the illustration work complete. Still need to do some logos and the final layout. But it will be an impressive collection. The authors did a tremendous job, creating a lot of very entertaining material. I think readers will be impressed.

Anything else you’re working on at present that you can talk about at this point?

Yes. I’ve designed images and a poster for cool event down in Texas. It is called Showdown @ Unobtainium. And it is a cross between a steampunk convention and a Renaissance fair, where there will be a lot of great, live entertainment, including a pyrotechnic battle royal between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison.

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What do you hope readers get from Return of the Human generally, and what might it offer them that’s absent from your other work?

Return is an entirely new reading experience. The digital realm has so many wonderful possibilities. But it is also a real showcase for my paintings. David Lloyd has been describing by saying that every panel could be a book cover. I honestly believe that no one has ever seen anything like it before!

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A veteran journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work…

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