Image Comics’ ongoing series Drifter is as beautiful as it is baffling. This critically acclaimed title debuted last year, and its first few issues get released in a collected edition this week — and any reader picking it up should be prepared to clear his or her mind of questions and get immersed in its strangeness. On a very basic level, it’s a kind of space Western, in which a mysterious man named Abram Pollux finds himself stranded on a dusty, desert planet inhabited by hard-bitten human settlers and inscrutable native species. Think Deadwood meets Dune.
The series’ creators are American writer Ivan Brandon and German artist Nic Klein, who previously collaborated on Image’s Viking and were wise to reunite, as they form a potent combination. Brandon lends the dialogue an evocative poeticism, but the main event is Klein’s incredible visuals. He’s the rare comics artist who does his pages all by himself, from initial pencils to finished colors. The results are astounding alien vistas, hypnotically odd costuming, and viscerally affecting facial design. I caught up with Brandon and Klein — calling in from separate continents — to talk about Firefly, European comics, and how virtually any information about the comic’s origin constitutes a spoiler.
What’s the genesis for Drifter? Who comes to whom with the idea?
Nic Klein: Actually, we kind of joined two existing ideas we’d had of our own for years and fit them together as a kind of meta-idea.
What were the two ideas?
NK: Well, we can’t tell you because that would be a major spoiler.
Even on a high level, you can’t tell me the overall concepts you merged? How could that be a spoiler?
Ivan Brandon: Well, Nic’s idea would literally spoil everything. I asked him what kind of thing he wanted to do, and he said sci-fi. I had the very, very beginnings of an idea — I wanted to do a space story that’s dirtier, the early stages of colonization; something that wasn’t shiny, that wasn’t The Jetsons. Then Nic had very specific ideas in terms of … um, again I don’t know how to even skirt around it.
So people who read the first volume, when they’re done, they’re not even going to know what the series is remotely about?
IB: They will, but there are underlying mysteries. There are deep questions in terms of what the planet is, when it is, who everyone is. So when you get through the first volume, some questions are answered and some are not. Even the sets are hard to talk about without spoiling. Everything is part of the mystery. The way I see things, story-wise, is: In life, we don’t always get the answers when day-to-day things are happening.
A stupid example I always give is this: When I was a student, I used to smoke in front of the high school. One day, this girl came up and just slapped the cigarette out of my mouth and walked away. I never found out why she did that. Life is full of that sort of stuff. You don’t get to know why people bob in and out of your life, so we want to handle the storytelling in that organic way. The mysteries are almost a B-plot in that these characters are still going through what they’re going through day to day. I always want that stuff to be engaging enough to entertain people while they’re wondering things.
Are you guys fans of other space Westerns?
IB: I don’t really know of any, to be honest. I know people mention Firefly, which I have not seen.
Really, you haven’t seen Firefly? I’m sure people talk about it all the time when they read this stuff.
IB: I’ve done about three interviews in the last few days, and it gets mentioned often. It’s weird because a lot of Drifter’s Western elements are intended to grab the thing and dirty it up. It’s less about the Western genre and more about what we felt was a natural context for these characters to live in, and it’s the early stage of this colonization where some of the vibes would be similar.
That dovetails into a larger question: Are we not supposed to know when the story is happening?
IB: I don’t like the sort of sci-fi where it’s all about the period, it’s all about the bells and the whistles and the guns and all that stuff. I like it where you can sort of understand the guy is having trouble with his girlfriend, and so on and so forth. Just very simple, human, recognizable obstacles. Obviously, we go a little farther out there in this case, but I never want it to be unrecognizable.
NK: It’s not really important what time in the future it is.
Have you guys ever actually met?
IB: Yes, twice. With Viking issue one, Nic came out and stayed at my house for a couple of weeks in New York. Once, I came out to Germany, and I didn’t go all the way out to where he lives, but I did go out to Berlin and he came and met me, and we had a good time.
“All the way out where he lives”? Nic, are you in the hinterlands?
NK: It’s Kassel. It’s not a huge city. It’s not really interesting; it’s not even interesting to Germans, actually. It’s mainly known for its train station.
Nic, where did you look for visual inspiration for this? It reminds me of Moebius, and Heavy Metal. It’s that style where everyone appears to be wearing something heavy — like in the concept art for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unproduced Dune movie, where people are out in these desert landscapes and have weird breathing apparatuses. Or Ralph McQuarrie, who did concept art for Star Wars.
NK: I grew up on Moebius, but directly looking for stuff I drew inspiration from … I couldn’t even tell you what that would be. I have the tendency to change my style a little bit for every book I do, and the thing that I wanted to do on this book was to have the colors be the star and have the line art pretty much be reduced into line art instead of spotted blacks or shading or crosshatching. The heavy lifting of the visuals would be handled by color.
The colors are really astounding, and you’re the rare comics penciler who does them himself. How long does it take you to do a page?
NK: Probably about two days from layout to finished page. Sometimes it’s three days a page, depending on how complex it is.
There’s all this interesting use of light in settings like caves and the open desert. If you’re figuring out light sources, do you set up models on your desk or something?
NK: I just work it out in my head. That’s half the fun, trying to figure that stuff out. I’ve always done everything like pencils, inks, colors; I think it’s more of a European thing. The classic way of working in the U.S. — the pencil, the ink, and then the colorist, this kind of production pyramid — didn’t exist in Europe. It never occurred to me just to learn one element. Plus, I’m a control freak. The thought of handing it over to somebody else is enough for me to get sweaty nightmares.
IB: Plus, he’s an actual painter, which is pretty rare in American comics — someone who can sit down with the canvas and paintbrushes and create a painting.
What were the conversations like when you guys were coming up with the Wheelers, those insane, gorgeous monsters?
IB: That’s also a tricky one because there’s a spoiler in the Wheelers.
You guys are killing me here!
IB: It’s just the toughest book that I’ve ever had in terms of answering questions because there’s so many spoilers.
NK: If we explained to you why they look the way they do …
IB: That’s the trick. I’m just trying to figure out how to … Okay, one thing I can tell you about the Wheelers is they’re supposed to look unfinished.
How about the giant worm creature?
IB: That one was all Nic, actually.
NK: I tried to figure out what a worm that eats rocks would look like.
A worm that eats rocks?
NK: Or digs through rocks, because it would have to have some pretty heavy jaws. Usually I try to think of something from a pseudo-science angle. With the worm, I showed it to my fiancée, who’s a biologist, and she was like, “Yeah, maybe make that bigger, and that part’s totally nonsensical you should change that.” And I was like, “It’s a comic book!”
Hey, it’s your fault for going to a scientist for that.
NK: I just like torture.