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Strange Attractors Interviews and Reviews

CBG #1210 January 24 1997

by James Echols:

Mark Sherman and Michael Cohen have created a tale seemingly simple on the surface but filled with rich complexity and intricacies. Strange Attractors is a far future science fiction story; done in a slightly retro-50's style (but don't tell them I said that). They started out self-publishing , under the apt name of Retrografix, but have recently signed a deal to do a mini-series entitled Strange Attractors:Moon Fever for Caliber.

Michael and Mark had worked on many projects together before coming to do this , but none of theim had gotten anywhere. Michael had gone to art school with the idea of becoming a comic artist. "Of course, as soon as he mentioned comics and art he was basically burned at the stake," said Mark, who had been writing novels and short stories. When they decided to get serious about comics, they adapted an idea Michael had been working on for awhile: Strange Attractors.

"The story wouldn't have worked as a novel," said Michael. "Strange Attractor is the kind of production where the visuals tells part of the story and the writing tells part of the story, even the style tells part of the story."

The simplest key to explaining the complex story of Strange Attractors is Sophie, the main character. One of the first motivators for the plot was trying to take a character who was not initially heroic and a bit withdrawn and putting her in situations where she would have to become heroic. She started as a curator in an endless museum. full of forgotten oddities ; three years later she is doing things that kind of surprise herself, taking some risks. "The transition from being a withdrawn, scared person to someone who takes risks seems heroic. It has nothing to do with going faster than a speeding bullet, stuff like that," said Michael.

When the story starts it seems like a straightforward space opera. That was due to a little insecurity on the creators'part. They thought they needed to pack so much plot in so that they could hook readers on the first issue. As they continued, they gained confidence in their readers and can now ease sideways a bit, go backwards a little bit, and do not need to develop plot as fast, telling the story on several different levels at once.

Now there is a major revelation coming at the end of issue fifteen. This will begin, in a way, a new story arc that is going to answer many of the questions that have come up so far. "We have a very rich understory that is probably a lot of the appeal of Strange Attractors," said Mark. In most SF comics these fantastic worlds seem like they are just "paste boards," like a movie set, where there is no real backstory. Not Strange Attractors; it has a very full background.

According to Mark and Michael, any hero is fighting two battles. One is the outward battle against the world that impinges at all times. The second battle is against themselves and their own limitations. At the end of issue fifteen there is the beginning of something that, sort of, is both.

Michael and Mark have always had an idea about where the story is going. One of the things that the readers are aware of is that the power of magic as opposed to science is becoming greater. It is something they have not explained yet. "Weíre putting a lot of weight on readersí shoulders to piece together the little hints weíve been dropping," said Michael. After the mini-series, in issue 16 ,they are going to begin a part of the story that will explain many of the things that have been mysterious.

Not only does the story follow Sophie's current adventures, it is also goes backwards into her childhood, into her head, and into her fantasy life, which is tied up with the old comic books that she loves. The surface level plot sometimes takes a back seat. The book is a relationship story in some ways about how Sophie is coming into contact with all these people who were her heroes.

Sophie is very much a fan of a fictional set of old comic books called "Spicy Space Stories." Michael and Mark know what these old comics are like, if not the exact stories contained therein. They are somewhat a parody of golden age comics, but they are very important in the plot. In Strange Attractors, the old comics are subversive encoded histories, semi-fictional stories about the heroes who actually appear in Strange Attractors.

"This very much comes out of an idea Phillip K. Dick, the science-fiction writer, had.", Mark explains. "One of the things he said was that he loved doing science-fiction because there was so much gold in that trash. That is part of what we are trying to show. Sophie is a kind of mirror for all of us who are involved in this comics world. I think a lot of us see ourselves in Sophie and her encyclopedic knowledge of comic books. We vicariously have been incredibly affected by what the world calls trash, our culture. It has no respect for comic books,and yet we get almost a transcendental thrill out of reading this fantastic literature called comic books. That is kind of where much of Strange Attractors comes from. The people involved in the industry and the consumers are involved in almost a semi-religious thrill , one that really affects our life. and really efects Sophieís life. She is kind of a mirror of us and of the fans themselves, who are looking in there."

Strange Attractors is a character-driven story in the most basic sense of the word. Mark and Michael created the background and these certain characters. "It is very often said that creators are the masters of the work at the beginning, but if they make certain choices they become more and more the slave of the work," said Mark. The characters just seem to take over. "You realize that Sophie would not alway do what was required for the plot," said Michael. So that, although they do know the end of the story, they cannot say how they are going to get there because the characters are, in some ways, in charge of their own destinies.

One of those characters is Pirate Peg,, the slightly crazed swashbuckler, who initially draws Sophie into abandoning her safe life in the museum, and venturing off into the unknown. Peg is the focus of the Caliber mini-series ,Strange Attractors: Moon Fever, that starts up this February. "One of the stylistic decisions we made early on", says Michael, "is to always tell the story from Sophie's point of view. Well in issue 14, Peg leaves Sophie, and goes off on a mission of revenge and self-discovery. Rather than break off from Sophie's story, we decided to tell Peg's tale seperately, in a tightly plotted mini-series that will tie up a lot of the loose plot threads involving Peg and her former band of comrades, the Moon Marauders."After the completion of the mini-series, the main series will pick up where it left off. Michael and Mark also hope to publish a second collection of Strange Attractors, one that will reprint the stories from issues 8 - 15.

Strange Attractors is so rich and complex as to nearly defy any attempts to summarize it in any form less than itself. There are many other characters, most of whom have become too big for their initial britches. After five years of publication, it seems like we are just beginning to get into the meat of the story, and it truly looks like it may be a very long time before we see its denouement. I for one, certainly hope to be there when it does end. It would do you well to be so, also. Start with the trade paperback and go from there. I guarantee you will kick yourself for not seeking it out much sooner.

Cold Cut Distribution's Feature Spotlight #2 - Nov. '94

Storyline: 

This is waaaay too plot-packed a comic to boil its whole story down into a couple paragraphs! The basic tale is about a young woman named Sophie, who starts in issue 1 as the new curator of the Museum of Lost Things and by issue 3 is off gallivanting across the galaxy in an attempt to rescue a childhood friend of hers who has married Sophie's sweetheart. She is assisted in her adventure by the legendary space pilot and counter-revolutionary, Pirate Peg. Peg also just happens to be the star of Sophie's favorite comic book, Spicy Space Stories, of which Sophie has memorized every issue. Since the stories were usually based on the very real exploits of Pirate Peg and her Moon Marauders, Sophie actually manages to glean quite a bit of useful knowledge and history from her memories of the comics. And when Fate chooses Sophie to be the hub of the upcoming galactic battle in the ages-old war between Magic and Science, you can bet that Sophie and her friends (and the readers) are in for one heck of an adventure.

Writing Review:

If I had to pick one complaint about this title, it's that each issue is so jam-packed with plot that you feel like you've read 4 or 5 regular comics. Issue 1 alone would have lasted a year if done in a Marvel book. The drawback to this pacing is that the characters go through so much before we can really care about them, since caring takes time and not much else. By the time I got to #3, I was desperately interested in the fates of Sophie and her companions. And now, like thousands of other Strange Attractors readers, I can only wait anxiously for issue 7's arrival early in November to find out how they get out of this one (Mark & Mike's penchant for a dramatic cliffhanger is a wonderful hook for future sales - you can't forget it, even after three months!)

Art Review:

Cohen's pleasant, 50's-style artwork is probably what gives "Retro-grafix" its name. Hearkening back to the days of Dell and Gold Key, Mike's simple layouts yet depth-filled panels are easy on the eye. His eye for details, like the strange gadgets constantly in the background at the Museum, provides a nice sense of "fullness". Excellently rendered.

Audience:

Strange Attractors is an unusual blend of science-fiction, adventure, and romance. There's also a big nostalgia attraction to the book, due to the key role of the "classic comic book" Spicy Space Stories. Cohen draws plenty of covers and interiors for this "comic within a comic" - you'd almost expect to find SSS listed in Overstreet (in the first issue of SA, they even provide Overstreet-like pics and listings for 8 or 9 issues of Spicy!). One suggestion: don't let prospective readers give up after reading issue 1. If you sometimes lend customers books, or provide a money-back guarantee on some books, be sure to keep the first 2 issues of SA together. Issue 1 read as a stand-alone is a possibly-confusing, blurringly-fast setup for the rest of the series. With 2, it makes a great story. Besides, the cliffhanger at the end of issue 2 is sure to get them back in your store, clamoring for the next book.

One nice feature of SA is the "story so far" blurb on the inside cover of every issue since #3. With a book like this, that's a big plus. It's tough to pick a book that Strange Attractors is like - it has the "galactic rebels on the run" feel of early Dreadstar and the "young girl in a space adventure" aspect of Wandering Star. To take a stab, I'd start SA at about one-half the sales of Wandering Star and work up from there.

The following Interview was conducted by Marcus Harwell for S.C.A.N.S. Magazine:

How did you get into the comics business?

After years of half-hearted stabs at actually finishing up a comic project and trying to get it published, I decided in 1992 to make a do-or-die attempt. I enlisted Mark Sherman, a writer friend, to collaborate with me on an updating of my previous project, a light-hearted science fiction comic called Strange Attractors. After the usual rounds of rejection notices, we were fortunate enough to run into Drew Hayes at a convention, and he enlightened about the wonderful world of self-publishing. We decided to take a shot at it, and 5 years later, here we are.

What qualities do you think you bring to the field?

I always considered myself as kind of a loner, but I really got involved in the self-publishing community that sprung up in the last few years. I found that by going through the self-publishing wars together, sharing ideas and promoting each others books, we were able to develop a bond of trust with each other. So when I came up with the concept of Mythography, I was easily able to enlist some top flight people to contribute to the book, though the work was done purely on speculation.

What's the most important thing we should know about the main character(s) in your book?

In Strange Attractors, what distinguishes Sophie from most of the other female adventure characters out there, is that she definitely does not want to be a hero. There's been a gradual awakening in her, that she needs to act, but she's always fighting her basic instinct, which is to withdraw from conflict. The story of Strange Attractors is in many ways the story of her growth from an ineffectual recluse, to a person who takes charge of her destiny. Tessa and Myjal, the two main characters in Empyrean Tales (my serialized Mythography story) are at this point almost totally ignorant of what's motivating the other. The readers will gradually be clued in to who these people really are and why they're doing what they do. In life, people's motivations are often very complex, and sometimes self-contradictory. More so than the usual "go on quest to find lost object to save my people" fantasy plot. I like creating complex ambivalent worlds, and seeing how complex, ambivalent characters interract in them.

Who does your book appeal to?

Part of the frustration of being a comic creator is that outside of the occasional fan letter, we have no idea who's reading our books. I would imagine that Strange Attractors would appeal to a lot of female comic readers, as well as older fans who could appreciate some of the retro look and humour of the book. There definitely seems to be a retro trend in comics today; so readers of books like Madman, Astro City, Hilly Rose and the like, would hopefully be strangely attracted to our book. Mythography is definitely geared towards the fantasy audience. I don't know of any other fantasy anthologies out there, so it's probably the best.

 

Is there any existing book you'd like to work on?

I can't see at this point in my life, working on anything that I didn't have a hand in creating.

How has the industry changed over the last 5 years?

Well, my supply of bubbling optimism is certainly at a low ebb. But even though we haven't yet found the magic marketing ploy to get Joe and Joanne Public reading comics, at least we've all learned that flashier super-heroes, gaudier covers, and sensational sex and violence aren't going to do the trick. Five years ago, every publisher was grinding out new universes as fast as they could, at least nowadays people realize that the universe can be as small as Francine and Katchoo's apartment, as long as its inhabited by characters you care about. And even though the market is in the depths of an abysmal slump, I think there's more good comics being put out now than ever before.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the immediate future of the industry?

Well, we are a real critical moment, and things could go either way. I suspect that for the near future we're going to be dealing with comics as a niche market, rather than a mass medium. Hang on to those few loyal readers, hope they'll bring along some friends, and forget about the cartoon adaptation or the blockbuster movie.

What part do you think technology will play in the future of comics?

For good or ill, there are some changes coming. I enjoy working with the same primitive tools that artists have used for centuries, and I suppose an electric pencil sharpener is my concession to hi-tech. Computer coloring has achieved some mind-boggling results, but as far as I'm concerned it doesn't enhance the reading experience one iota, and in the case of a master craftsman like Mark Shultz, it could only detract. Any technological advancement that makes the printing process better and cheaper would be okay with me. Most likely, the biggest changes will come in the way of marketing on the internet. Right now it's a mess, but there are those among us who swear it's the wave of the future.

How do you think the comics industry could be improved?

Whew, don't get me started. I would like to say that what Sy is doing is definitely a good sign, getting control of the industry back in the hands of people who really love comics.

What more could independent comics do for retailers and fans?

It's hard to say. A lot of us have been knocking our heads against the wall for years trying to find new ways to get people to sample our books. I was part of the team that put together GASP, which was a 64 page sampler of quality self-published material, that was given way at cost. Whether it did any good or not, I was never able to determine, even though 28000 of them were distributed. I recently worked with Jimmy (Shades of Grey) Gownley to put together a slide show called "Spectrum Without Color" intended to be used as an overview of the best black and white comic material out there. The slide show will be sent out without charge to any retailer interested. We had a press release printed in a recent CBG and got 1 response. I try to put out quality material in a timely fashion, keeping a reasonable price. What more can I do?

If there were a movie made of your book, who would you cast in the leading roles?

I hope if I was ever approached by someone wanting to make a Strange Attractors movie, I'd have the integrity and the good sense to say "no thanks."

Do you have any advice for budding creators?

Keep creating. The business end of comics can be really frustrating and draining. Keep your focus on doing your best possible work, and the rest will take care of itself. Now, if I would only listen to my own advice.