This is an interview conducted with Scott Snyder, the writer of AD: After Death, All-Star Batman, American Vampire, and Wytches, over Skype on November 11th. The first issue of AD: After Death is scheduled to be released today, November 23rd, from Image Comics. Although artist and co-creator Jeff Lemire was unable to join the planned group call, I’m going to use this space to plug his current project, Secret Path, a critically acclaimed graphic novel with Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie, focusing on the story of Chanie Wenjack and available in stores now along with the tie-in album.
Ray: Thanks for taking the time out of your schedule for this interview, Scott. I must say, I’m fascinated by the world in AD: After Death. This is a very different kind of immortality than I’ve seen explored in fiction before. It’s a world where immortality has become the norm. So I was wondering what went into your thought process when it came to developing the culture and psychology of a world full of people who never had to worry about the end?
Scott: That’s a great question. It really was (based on) a conversation that Jeff Lemire and I had years ago, when he asked me what the driving force behind my writing was. I’ve always had a tremendous fear of death and have struggled at times with depression and anxiety. It always comes back to how quickly everything is going, the meaning or lack of meaning in things, the questions about are we ever going to have more answers than we feel like we do. The older I get the scarier it gets, but also the older you get the calmer you get about it. There’s this constant oscillation of terror and also peace with it. Jeff encouraged me to write a story that he could draw that would explore these fears.
The way this world came about was through a visual that quells all those fears, so it would be almost pastoral and instantly recognizable. It would almost be a memory palace. It wouldn’t feel too unfamiliar. You would know most of the people, and it would almost have a strange small-town feel. We looked at a lot of art. There was a Swedish artist I looked at online, who did a lot of paintings of agricultural landscape, but he put industrial and futuristic elements into it. There would be a farmhand, or a watering machine that were robots, even though everything else looked like contemporary agribusiness. We wanted it to be a world that initially feels warm and welcoming, like a place you would want to live forever. Almost like a Mount Olympus feel. But as the story goes on, you start to see the more nightmarish qualities of the world, and the feeling starts to set in that it’s a very circular world, more of a trap than a liberation.
Ray: I definitely saw the influence of classic Americana on Jeff’s art. Unfortunately, Jeff Lemire couldn’t join us today, but this is the first collaboration for the two of you, right?
Scott: Yeah, we wrote next to each other on Swamp Thing and Animal Man and collaborated as writers, but he actually hasn’t drawn anything extensive for another writer before, so it’s our first real collaboration as writer and artist. I was really honored to be a part of this.
Ray: Your writing style and his art style work really well together, I thought.
Scott: Thanks. We’ve been friends for going on seven or eight years now, since we started at Vertigo. Even before our books came out, we met and he’s been like a brother to me. One of the great things about this book is that it really came from Jeff encouraging me to explore the central thing that I have the most difficulty with. He’s seen me through some really difficult times as a friend, and hopefully I’ve done the same thing for him in little ways. He’s really seen me through some dark periods, wrestling with these topics, so having him as a partner on this book was key for this, where he encouraged me to do prose, he encouraged me to make this book more autobiographical and personal. For all of that, I’m very grateful for him as a partner.
Ray: You mentioned prose, and I’ve read your previous prose work, Voodoo Heart, which I believe was your first published work. This is your first comic work that joins comic panels with illustrated prose. I was wondering, what about this project made it feel like the right fit to bring those two styles together?
Scott: That’s another great question. The reason is because Jeff felt that the topic is so personal and needed so much attention to its confessional element that he thought it would be good for me to try prose. I’ve always told him that I was envious of him because he had this place he could go to that was solely his, it was visionary in a way that was totally singular, where he could do graphic novels like Essex County, or Underwater Welder, or Trillium, where he was writing and drawing, so the whole project is his vision entirely. I haven’t had that since I did prose.
I love comics dearly and don’t necessarily miss prose, but he was saying that this topic is so close to my heart and the story is sort of confessional, so it might be a good idea to do sections where I’m the one creating the emotion and atmosphere. You get very used to pawning that off on another creator when you’re the writer and they’re the artist. You can go “Oh, Mr. Capullo, it’s a dark and stormy night that feels really tense” and he’ll draw it. But when you’re doing prose, you have to make the dark and stormy night feel tense through your own words. The challenge of that is daunting, but once you start doing it, it’s also very empowering. So I’m very glad that we made this kind of book in this way.
Ray: I can see how much we’re getting to explore the main character’s inner turmoil in the prose panels. What can you tell us about Jonah Cooke, our main character? He’s clearly a main player in how the world became what it is based on his narration, but there’s a lot of unanswered questions about him. What can you tell us about what drives him and where he’s going?
Scott: Yeah, this is somebody who feels tremendous guilt that he’s lived a life where he’s been crippled by his own fear of death and he hasn’t been a part of the stories around him the way he thinks he should have been. He takes this opportunity to get this golden ticket to this place because he thinks he’ll get the chance to be a better person the second time around. It leads him down a dark path. He’s a character who, as embarrassing it is to say, has a lot of autobiographical elements to him. When I was a kid, I had a pretty serious fear of death and I developed a lot of compulsions around it, and one of them was stealing. That sense of terror he feels and the sense that something is wrong with him, that he’s missing a protective layer against the fear of death and the brevity of life, is for better or worse something I definitely felt when I was younger and still feel sometimes today.
Ray: Not a question, per se, but I remember you definitely mentioning that Wytches came out of a visual fear you had as a child, of a tree near your home. It seems like making stories out of real fears works as a method to get them out there and create some great stories in the process.
Scott: Thanks, I agree. It’s funny, because even when I’m doing drama, it feels like I’m writing horror. Horror, in my mind, is the perfect burned-down conflict where you’re facing off with the things you fear most in both a literal and psychological way. For me, good horror at least begins with the most haunting image from childhood or something that you’re trying to unpack emotionally. With me, this project really began with the visual of this community that hasn’t been down and hasn’t seen what the world is in many years. They’ve been isolated, and it almost becomes this heaven.
Ray: Now, Inez, the other main human character we see in this issue. She doesn’t get as much page-time as Jonah does this issue, but it’s pretty clear from the start that she’s someone with a lot of importance to both Jonah and to the story. What can you tell us about her and her role in the series?
Scott: Yeah, she comes back in book two and book three. She’s sort of the last character up there that Jonah had an attachment to. The way this world works is, not to give too much away, you take this medicinal cure that prevents aging and cellular degeneration. It keeps you young and healthy, but the human memory, as young and healthy as it is, can only maintain about a hundred years of material. So one of the things that’s either a boon or a benefit, or a nightmare depending on how you think about it, is that after a while you only remember the last hundred years or so of your life up there.
One of the things that Jonah is so afraid of is forgetting who he used to be. Other characters like Inez embrace this element and encourage him to say, “Listen, the benefit is that not only do you forget who you were, you become a different and better person each time. Let go, cycle through, and detach yourself from what came before.” Jonah has tremendous reservations about this, so Inez is very much—not an antagonist in that she’s evil or scary, but she has a very different personal view compared to Jonah.
Ray: More like a counterpoint to Jonah’s perspective?
Ray: I found the brief segment we saw of her very intriguing. I won’t spoil too much for the readers, but early on in the story we get a brief view of some creatures that are distinctly not human and very disturbing. I assume we’ll be seeing more of them in the story, so I was wondering what went into the design process for these creatures? What creatures, real or fictional, were the inspiration for you and Jeff here?
Scott: What we wanted to do here was create a landscape that was wholly alien. If you’ve been living in this place for hundreds of years and you’ve never ventured down the mountain to see what’s become of the world that was falling apart when you went up there, we didn’t want people to come out and just see grass and trees. We wanted it to be terrifyingly alien, as well as weaponized in a way. Whatever these things are, whether they’re defenses or they’ve grown unnaturally from the twisted things that happened in the world, you’ll find out later in the book. The idea is supposed to be that once he leaves, he encounters a completely alien landscape.
Ray: Right away, those creatures that we saw grabbed me and pulled me into the story. I’m a huge monster fan, and any story that has truly unnatural creatures is going to hook me. And Jeff is a master of drawing the weird, of course. Will the story be contained to the general area that Jonah is exploring right now, or will we see any other locations in the world beyond it?
Scott: You’ll see, he does get to the bottom, so you’ll see what happened to the world and whether there are people there waiting for him. You’ll see what happened to society and all of that. That’s sort of the big crescendo of the story in book three, him reaching the bottom and making some pretty terrible discoveries and wondrous discoveries at the same time. If you think of the series as one singular story, it really is like a graphic novella in three parts. It’s like an episode of Twilight Zone or Black Mirror in that way. When you get to the bottom of the mountain, you’ll get a bit of a surprise, but I think it’s also something that speaks to the heart of the whole book.
Ray: You mentioned the format, and this is something that I remember seeing a lot of when I was growing up—these extra-sized prestige format issues. I haven’t seen them in a while, and I was wondering what about this project made this extra-sized prestige format the right fit for it.
Scott: Well, we wanted to do something that set it apart, because it’s not a project that Jeff and I did commercially. We’re actually giving a good percentage of the profits to Image’s Creators for Creators fund, which helps up-and-coming creators fund their new book. Part of the idea of giving it this different prestige format was to make it look different and feel different, because it’s a project that experiments for both of us, in ways we haven’t before. But also, this is something that stands outside our normal, more propulsive, bombastic, commercial comic book oeuvre. We both have done books that are quieter, like Wytches or Severed, but those are still high-concept horror. Jeff has done books like Essex County, but we wanted to create the feel that we’re trying something very different and it has different priorities than anything we’ve previously done.
Ray: I thought the format worked really well. It was great to get sixty-nine pages of the story in one go. Before we wrap up, I just have a personal question of the concept of this world. In A.D., a lifetime is essentially just a cycle that gets renewed endlessly. So, we had that possibility, and if time wasn’t a factor, what would you do with a cycle? Is there is any unusual or daunting way that you could spend the equivalent of a lifetime if you had unlimited ones?
Scott: That’s a terrific question. I think one of the impulses behind this book is the desire to be able to live your life over and over again and be able to take all the roads you never took. I think, for me, as much as that’s appealing as you get older, the thing that drives Jonah at the end, and I think the thing that makes that sort of promise less appealing as I get older and get married and have kids, and my parents are older but still with me—I think I’d almost want to cycle through the life I already have over again.
I think that’s one of the central concepts of the book, that Jonah has a lot of trouble letting go of who he was—not because he’s happy with who he is, but because it’s simply him. I think that’s one of the key reasons for the fear of death—that you get there and it’s simply over. And there’s a revisiting of the happier times in his life that he misses. That’s the fallibility of memory. I don’t know if there’s anything I can say like, “You know what I’d love to do? Be a biker. Be a Pirate.” For me, the only thing I’m really worried about when it comes to the brevity of things and my own mortality is, my biggest desire is to be able to go back and revisit the moments of my life that made me happiest, that I’m proudest of. My kids, my parents, my family. That’s one of the morals of the book in my eyes.
I’d like to take this time to thank Scott Snyder for making time in his busy schedule to talk to me, and to once again promote this book. AD: After Death Book One is now on sale at a comic book store near you.