Writer Charles Soule's breakthrough comic, 27, finally solved the question of why so many legendary rock stars, such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison, died at such an early age. Since then, he's consistently been on fans' radar, with both creator-owned comics and work-for-hire books hitting the stands with great regularity. His brand of speculative fiction has presented a surprising blend of indelible characterization and original high concept situations. Soule recently spoke to The Outhouse at the release party for his new graphic novel Strange Attractors.
The Outhouse (OH): What was the genesis of Strange Attractors? What got you thinking about this story?
Charles Soule (CS): I've lived in New York City for 16 years at this point, and I've always loved the city. Even from the first time I came here, I was struck by how immense and complicated and amazing this place is. The dense layering of systems in this place is really fascinating to me, so I thought there could be a story there. Something about the way everything in the city works, the way it interacts, and maybe there's somebody who could actually use it. The specific genesis of this particular story is that I was looking at – here in New York, they have these newspaper boxes on the corners, and they're different colors. You have The Village Voice, which is red, The New York Times, which is blue. I thought "what if the order in which those colors were arranged meant something? What if it was a code? What if you changed the code? What would that mean?" Initially, it was something like that, like a secret society or something. But then I thought you could start there, but what if it was something bigger than that? What if all of the city was the code? I had that idea for a few years before I did anything with it, but eventually I started scripting it, and here we are at the release party!
OH: Where did you move here from sixteen years ago?
CS: I was in school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and I had lived in Asia before that. I lived in some huge cities. I was in Hong Kong, Singapore, Manilla, so I'm no stranger to gigantic [metropolises], but New York is far and way my favorite. I felt like it was time to write a story about New York and do it justice.
OH: How does moving around so much inform the act of creation for a writer?
CS: When you're writing a story, you need to be able to find a way to make it unique, to make it your own, and also to bring up scenarios that are unfamiliar to readers. There are things we've all seen a million times in stories, so living overseas and in different places – well, whether you live overseas or not, but seeing as much as you can in your life before you start to write gives you more raw material to work from, more experiences to draw on. I think it's very useful for me personally. A lot of my stuff is set overseas, when I can do it. Plus, I just really enjoyed it.
OH: Going back to your point about a city being a series of systems that fit together, did you do a lot of reading into systems theory or complexity theory?
CS: I did. The premise of Strange Attractors is that there are two mathematicians, an old one and a young one, and they're able to use complexity theory to turn all of New York into this huge fusion that they can turn on and do things with. The idea of that for me was, if I was going to write something about that topic, I want to get it right. I'm not a superstar mathematician by any means. I mean, I like math, I've always liked math, but I'm not any better than anyone else at it. I did do a lot of reading to understand the way complex systems work as much as they can be understood. They're complicated; it's not immediately obvious, even now when a lot of analysis has been done. I did my best. I'm not going to say I'm an expert, but hopefully I did it well enough to fake it.
OH: As a writer, do you have to plan things out pretty specifically in advance, or can you work pretty loosely as you go on?
CS: It's really a story-by-story question. When you're writing a story like Strange Attractors, which is very intricately plotted – things that happen on the first page influence what happens on the last page in a very direct way, and there's a cause and affect, so you have to make sure that whatever you're laying out, all the little widgets and all the little gears mesh together, so that was very planned. But then you write something like 27, which is a story about musicians and rock 'n' roll, which is another big part of my life, that, for me was – I had ideas about where it was going to go, but I let myself find the story as it was happening, I just sort of broke through it, and that enabled it to take some crazy left turns, which was fun too. It just depends on the story that you're telling. It's nice to be able to do both, because sometimes you need to do one, and sometimes you need to do the other.
OH: Speaking of 27, that story also dealt a lot with secret, undiscovered histories. What about that type of story appeals to you so much?
CS: Well, you're talking about secret history, this idea of "this is the way you think the world is, but actually, this is the way it's always been instead." Strange Attractors is like that with the idea of "New York City has always been different from what you thought it was," and 27 was "the lives of rock stars is not what you thought they were." Maybe it's a cliche that appeals to me personally. I've always liked it. I've liked it in things that I've read or seen in movies or whatever. Now that I have a chance to write some of these stories of my own, I guess it's fun. They're not all like that. I have another series called Strongman, which is much more of an action-adventure series starring a luchador, those masked Mexican wrestler guys...although now that I think about it, the next creator-owned thing I have coming out is called Letter 44, which will be from Oni Press in the fall, and that's another secret history thing. It's about when a new President is elected, he gets a letter from the old President, a secret letter that's left on his desk in the Oval Office. In this one, there's all these amazing secrets about like what's really happening in space and stuff, that are in the letter, and he's got to deal with it. Of my four or five creator-owned series, all but one of them have been secret history things, so clearly, that's my wheelhouse.
OH: Is that something you plan to explore in your work-for-hire things?
CS: I have three work-for-hire things right now. I'm doing Swamp Thing, and Red Lanterns for DC and Thunderbolts for Marvel, which are three very different series. You've got Swamp Thing, which is a supernatural, almost a horror series starring a plant giant dude. Red Lanterns is a space-based-rage-aliens comic, and then you have Thunderbolts, which is a book about the biggest anti-heroes in the Marvel Universe getting together and trying to have a team. They all push different buttons for me, and they all require different skills. The experience I've been having with the work-for-hire stuff is that you're on this intense roller coaster because – like with Strange Attractors, I was able to plan it out for literally years, while on Swamp Thing, for example, I have it planned out a ways ahead, but I'm on this constant train going forward where you have to get the scripts in. It's almost taking me where it wants to go in a certain sense. That said, I have the first year of the book totally planned out and I know what's going to happen.. The second year, we'll have to see where it goes. But I do like my secret history. What can I say? [laughs]
OH: Thunderbolts was just announced at Chicago. Is that something Marvel came to you for? Did you have to pitch for it?
CS: You always have to pitch. Hypothetically, Scott Snyder or Frank Miller can come in and say "I'm going to do a Superman book," and that's that, but I'm still [at a place] where I have to pitch everything. That said, I've known the editor on Thunderbolts for a long time, Jordan White, who's a fantastic guy. He was a fan of 27, and I let him read some of Strange Attractors early, and he knew that I was capable – or, hypothetically capable – and he needed a few fill-ins on Thunderbolts, and he called me up and asked "can you do a couple of quick ones?" and I said "sure, I can do a few." That turned into the ongoing series, but mostly what happened was, I did the two fill-ins, they were good, and they needed somebody, so they thought "why reinvent the wheel, the guy's already on the book." So that's what happened.
OH: Getting back to Strange Attractors, talk a bit about your artist. You've mentioned that you specifically wanted a New York-based artist on the book. Why was that important?
CS: When you look at the art for Strange Attractors, or think about the story, it's a story where the city is a character in and of itself, and if New York was not rendered properly, the story would not have worked. I found Greg Scott, thank god, who lives on Staten Island, and who's lived here all his life, as far as I know. He loves New York as much as I do, and when I talked about this initially, I said that I wanted this to be a love letter to the city, I wanted to get it all right, and he said "that is something that I understand and believe that I can do." He told me that he worked harder on this book than any book he's ever done, and I think it really shows on the pages. It's beautiful work.
OH: In general, what kind of communication do you engage in with your artists?
CS: I'm very involved. I absolutely spend time talking to the artist. You have to. Ideally, comics are a collaborative process, and if you just step back, then it's just not the same. Anytime I've done something where I've had that dialogue with the artist, it just comes out better. It just does. I've always done that, and I will continue to do that.
OH: To wrap up, give us the pitch for Strange Attractors.
CS: The elevator pitch for Strange Attractors is "Harry Potter meets Good Will Hunting, for grown ups, set in New York City." I feel like that's fairly accurate. You can also say it's like Inception, except with complexity theory instead of dreams, or you could say it's a really cool, exciting book that has a lot of smart ideas in it that I think you're going to love, and I hope you check it out. Strange Attractors!