Tokyo Ghost is a new comic that takes place in a bleak world in which humanity has lost itself in haze of technological dependency, a world all but dominated by the media moguls at the fictitious Flak Corp. (see, it’s sci-fi, we swear). When straight-edge technophobe Debbie Decay and her addicted cop sweetheart Led Dent are sent to Tokyo to discover the secret of its tech-resistant EMP field (and raid its hoarded natural resources), the couple might inadvertently uncover a way to give humanity a new lease on life…if Dent can kick his habit.
We recently sat down with writer Rick Remender and artist Sean Murphy to get a look behind the scenes of this harrowing, all-too-timely series.
Tokyo Ghost deals in some pretty serious themes, but it’s also rock-n-roll entertainment. Was it difficult to balance the message and the entertainment factor?
Rick Remender: We wanted to make something that was fast-moving and sort of entertaining, and a lot of the time, that gets lost in translation. It’s a dour tone for sure, but there’s a love story hidden in there, and then you mix in the pulpy set pieces of Los Angeles and the samurai, and hopefully there’s fun that shines through some of the ugly aspects of the world.
Rick, between Tokyo Ghost and Low, you seem pretty pessimistic about humanity’s chances. Is there any way we can avoid all of your different bad futures, or is technology going to doom us all?
RR: [laughs] I go back and forth. Hopefully we can avoid at least most of them. Somebody asked me once why the post-apocalyptic keeps calling me to it, and I recognized I have done quite a bit of that stuff. I read an article that defined the purpose for imagination, the reason we evolved imagination was to predict catastrophe in order to avoid it. So you can imagine if you leave this food outside, a bear is gonna come eat it, and then the bear is gonna eat you. And I thought that was really fascinating, and I sort of dialed it into the idea that maybe that’s why I’m so fascinated by these environmental catastrophes, or catastrophes that are not environmental, like Low, where we just deal with the inevitable expansion of the sun—what if it was a little premature? What if something kicked it into gear? I suppose there’s that, and there’s also being raised in the ’80s, and being inundated with Road Warrior and being a punker back then. Everything had a mushroom cloud—I used to sit around drawing mushroom clouds. It was in the zeitgeist, it was something that could happen any day.
All of that probably cooks into a stew of why I end up doing those things. And if it seems pessimistic, I do tend to lean towards pessimism, and I try not to. Low was sort of an attempt to say, “in a world where you have every reason to be pessimistic, can you find optimism and push your way through and change that world?” And Tokyo Ghost is more an examination of the environmental catastrophes and the way I see us avoiding them.
You see people online arguing so passionately over Scarlet Witch’s tiara—oh, she has the wrong tiara!—and they’re all so f—ing angry. But at the same time, the world is literally collapsing. The arctic shell is reduced, like, 50 percent since 1979. You’re looking at mass extinctions, and they’re not online going, “the arctic shell is shrunk 50percent since 1979! Holy s——!” Instead, they’ve all [got] this infantilized need to stay in their childhood and be upset about if Batman has the wrong guy wearing the mask.
I found that an interesting part of our culture, especially being a comic book nerd, and somebody who is kind of steeped in this stuff—it was fascinating to me that we were all distracting ourselves from reality by living in this virtual reality. All of these things—they make me feel pessimistic and frightened. And so I wanted to exponentially amplify that and create the world of Tokyo Ghost.
There’s something of a backlash now against how buried many of us are in our phones. Was that what inspired Led Dent’s zombielike tech-trance?
RR: For sure. And when Sean and I were developing this, it was something we were talking a lot about. One day, we ended up spending three hours on the phone just ranting about the new social norms that have appeared. Nobody was really sitting around playing Snake at dinner, you know? Nobody was on their Nokia during a movie. But now—I took my kids to Disneyland, and on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, there’s a dark scene—you’ve got five people with their phones up recording the damn ride because what’s going to be more fun than reliving Pirates of the Caribbean on your f—ing cell phone? The glare from their screens is literally blinding everyone behind them. You go out to dinner with friends, and there’s games now where everybody piles their phones in the middle of the table and whoever grabs theirs first has to pay for dinner.
We are dealing with something that activates the same part of our brain like gambling and food and drug addiction activates. The same endorphin kick you get when you pull the handle on a slot machine happens when you go to check Facebook or Tumblr or Wamblr or Scamplr…any of the millions of things we’re signed up for. We go to these things knowing that we’re probably going to find s——, but it’s the idea of opening a present to see what’s waiting.
And it has caused, I think, problems. And it’s going to continue to cause problems. Not just people driving who can’t fight the instinct to look at their phone, so they kill people…we’re all just completely dialed in all the time, and that’s a big aspect we wanted to explore with Dent, was a character who had fallen into that and to magnify what we’re seeing with our smartphones so we could get a look at what could possibly happen.
You’re not really sure who’s the narrator on page one, and then eventually you figure out it’s Debbie—this is much more Debbie’s story than Dent’s. A lot of other teams might have been inclined to tell that story from Dent’s perspective. Did that cross your mind, or was this story always going to be hers?
RR: You know, as you’re developing it, it goes back and forth. At one point it was both of their stories, but it became far less interesting to tell the story of the addict than to focus on the co-dependent, on the person supporting the addict. And that’s a role that exists in almost every single unhealthy relationship, someone’s usually propping them up. There’s somebody who is enabling that behavior. That character is never explored.
It goes against the tide—we had this wonderful explosion of female characters in comics, something that I’ve been trying to do since 2004 with books like Strange Girl and Sorrow. We’re seeing a wide variety of books made, with lead female roles, but I think there’s also potentially a pandering aspect where all of these females are too perfect. They don’t represent the women I’ve known, they don’t emulate things I’ve seen in my wife and my daughter and my mother and my ex-girlfriends and friends that I’ve had, which is human frailty. Strengths and weaknesses.
So we were really fascinated, both Sean and I, to focus in on Debbie, who is straight-edge, she’s hardcore, she can live on these streets and stay alive, she can take care of herself. But boy, it really makes her much more interesting that she also has that human component of codependency. You get to mix those things together, and she really became to me the obvious choice, and to Sean as well. We naturally gravitated to her being the point of view character so we could examine a complex, strong female character as opposed to making a Mary Sue of perfection who flips around and kicks ass.
Sean Murphy: I’m a huge fan of Bill’s work—as every artist should be—but I came to it only recently. I think I accidentally fell into the same influences that he did: artists like Sergio Toppi and other European illustrators. I love loose and scratchy inking, so that’s probably why I get compared to Bill a lot. But it’ll take me a lot more work to get to Bill’s level.
What prompted you to place the world’s only tech-less bastion in Tokyo?
RR: I think it’s the obvious contradiction of where Tokyo is now. The root desire for me in making comics is always visual, it’s always pulpy, it’s wanting to make something that’s a serialized, exciting, strange, weird ride, because somebody has to spend years drawing these things. So Sean and I had wanted to introduce samurai, and it seems so outlandish [laughs], but it’s weeks of talking before it all forms into this clear picture.
We needed a tech-free zone as a counterweight to the Isles of Los Angeles, and so what we landed on was [that] Tokyo has been completely tech-free for a number of years. There’s an EMP field around all of Tokyo so there’s no tech. Nature has reclaimed Tokyo. And as soon as we talked about that, we started yelling at each other about these visuals. There’s trees and vines and people are swinging around! And then we got the idea for this neo-bushido samurai movement.
It’s the same thing with Davey Trauma in the book; he’s a millennial nostalgist, and I love the idea that everything’s about nostalgia. Kids now are starting to get nostalgic for Nirvana, which hits that 20-25 year cycle. There’s always that resurgence of interest. So we [got] the samurai element through a bunch of people who were refugees that had moved to Tokyo and had taken it upon themselves to create a new version of the bushido code.
Sean, how did you approach designing this version of Tokyo and envisioning the neo-bushido style?
SM: A lot of it is just scribbles—I have a lot of references I found online, and I try to keep the basic shapes of the hats, robes and swords. For close-ups of helmets or other samurai bits, I’ll slow down and carefully references something specific to give the art more legitimacy. But for 90 percent of the costumes, it’s just organized nonsense. There’s so much detail in the Tokyo Ghost world that I could get bogged down with too much references if I’m not careful.
Having worked on franchise projects and your own creator-owned work, do you find it’s more difficult to work within a preexisting comic universe or to create a complete world from scratch?
SM: I’m more comfortable creating new properties.
RR: Oh, it’s far more difficult to work within a preexisting universe. I can’t just say, “well, Tokyo’s an EMP zone.” Or, “you know what really works for my characters and gets me cool samurai visuals? Tokyo is a beautiful garden.” I can pitch it, and it’ll probably get a lot of “we’re going to do what to Tokyo?” Sometimes it’ll get through, sometimes you can’t.
SM: Years ago I tried to draw more mainstream comics but I wasn’t good at keeping track of superhero costumes and remembering which belt buckle belonged to which hero. And working on those books means the heroes are in the spotlight, not the artist. With brand new titles, the creative team takes the spotlight.
RR: You’re dealing with a cast of characters you don’t control. I think maybe one time I had the characters I wanted to use in my time doing that stuff. They’ve got 60 other books being printed, so if you want to tell a big grand story that involves somebody, chances are, if it’s a good character, she’s in use. Galactus is over there, sorry. Navigating the X, Y, and Zs of that stuff—and then going back in continuity: could this character do this, based on what they’ve done before? Yes, no , maybe.
I’m creating characters whole cloth. Led Dent is exactly the metaphor I want him to be. He looks the way Sean wants him to be, and Debbie is the exact character I want her to be. That way she speaks to what we’re trying to say. And she looks the way Sean wants her to look. And there were no raindrops to dance through to do what we want. And also tonally, we can do what we want. The book is R-rated. Hopefully it’s not gratuitous; there’s a couple shots of Led that are. [laughter] There’s more male genitals in this book than any other comic I’ve done.
That actually sticks out—we get a couple butt shots from Debbie, but there’s so much more full frontal male nudity than female sexuality in here.
RR: There’s plenty of sexy Debbie stuff, and ladies in the background at parties coming up, but I think that one of the things that Sean and I really started to crack up about is the fear of the male trunk. It’s true! So Debbie’s topless here and there, and she’s beautiful, and there’s the perfect beautiful female and male forms—but we put in one, you know, peeno shot and [laughs] it sort of went rolling there, after the one. I added a shot where he’s swinging in over a lake and dangling all over the place. [laughs] It gets a little out of control in the next arc.
You’ve broken the seal.
RR: [laughs] You do! You realize “you don’t see a lot of wieners in comics.” We’re pretty afraid of wieners. So we’ve gone wiener-centric. The next arc has some pretty big monuments to the male genitalia. Mostly because we’re idiots.