Ah, time travel — is there any plot device as alluring as taking two disparate time periods and smashing them together? The newest title from Legendary Comics, however, takes a slightly different tack when it comes to bending space and time to its will. Epochalypse, from writer Jonathan Hennessey and artist Shane Davis, takes us to a strangely familiar world in which 600 years of human history have collapsed in upon one another resulting in a crazy mish-mash of different eras, epochs, and periods from across history. With a mysterious police state and retro-futurist enforcers called Resynchronizers and citizens trying to smuggle in anachronistic technology from across time, Epochalypse is a compelling, deeply inventive story that hits the ground running and doesn’t let go until the issue’s climax. The first issue is available wherever fine comics are sold today and, to take you deeper into the story, I caught up with writer Jonathan Hennessey to talk about how the book came to be, his long-running fascination with turning history into comic books, and much more.
Nerdist: Let’s talk about Epochalypse. I read the first two issues, I greatly enjoyed it. One thing that I really appreciated – I was a history major, I’ve always had a big love for history – it’s nice to see that woven into the fabric of a comic like this. I know that you’ve adapted historical events for graphic novels before, but what about history as told through comics, in particular, fascinates you?
Jonathan Hennessey: Well, I feel like I’ve always been blessed and cursed with having a sort of a thinking person, right? I’ve always tried to understand what’s going on around me. I often felt as a kid that I was two seconds behind everybody else, just sort of catching on to things, but a little bit slow in the uptake. And so I’m just always trying to understand the present, and the more that we sort of like – the older we get, the more involved in the present we become, because those of us who grow up nerds, really in love with fantasy and science fiction and everything. I remember a real turning point for me when I stopped having Dungeons & Dragons characters who weren’t half-orcs or humans or halflings – I actually got interested in only having human characters. That was a real turning point for me at a certain age.
So if you want to understand the present, you have no choice but to understand the past, because the past is this immensely long stilt that the future is balancing on. And so, you know, I’ve become really a born-again lover of history, which probably happened in my 20’s. It’s really sort of borne of a desire to understand and to interact meaningfully and substantially in the world. And comics is great for that, because the old shop-worn adage “A picture is worth a thousand words,” is true.
You can, for example – on the projects, this project, Epochalypse, I can show in issue 2, I can take you to 1640’s, the Hague – the Netherlands is not really a place that I’ve think a lot of comics have gone before. It’s possible, but just with one or a couple of panels, the reader can be taken there. And all the work that you would have to do to set the stage writing prose, whether it’s non-fiction or fiction, you’d have to expend a lot more energy building that scene, rather than just delivering it fresh to the eyeballs, and then just letting the imagination go from there, which is what I love.
N: I agree – there aren’t many comics that have taken us to 1640’s The Hague. For some reason, it’s not that popular a setting, but it really works here. So tell us, what can we expect from the comic? Where did the premise come from?
JH: The premise sort of came from – it was actually inspired by, what in some circles is known as paleo-futuristic architecture. So places that were built, buildings that were built to look like the future at a certain time, but the future was actually very different than what it turned out to be. The very shell of this idea came to me on a visit to Albany, New York, of all – you want to talk about inspiring places. But it’s part – in Albany is part of the apparatus of the state of New York, as the capital. In the 1950’s they built this huge expansion of the state government, and they wanted to have this very forward-looking vision for what this huge building project was going to be.
So they hired this architect, Wallace K. Harrison who was building out sort of futuristic things. He was involved in this very famous building in the 1930’s World Fair, of the Trylon in Perisphere, that was out in Flushing Park, Flushing Meadows. No longer there, of course. I mean, the the Trylon and Perisphere is not there.
He built the UN building, he designed elements of Rockefeller Center, and so he built the Empire State Plaza to be – in the 50’s, to look like the future. That was the vision they were going for. But when you go there now, you feel like you’re standing in Space: 1999 or Woody Allen’s Sleeper, or Logan’s Run or something like that. It feels like you’re actually in some future that never happened, and it’s really kind of – for me, it’s dislocating and wild. I felt like I was standing in some vision of the future my grandparents would have had, but that never happened.
There are a few other places that have buildings like this. One of them is Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, which I visited for the strange buildings that they have there. The capital of Brazil, which is built on a high prairie in the middle of the country, out of nothing, in the 50’s. It also has this crazy antiquated/futuristic look. So that really – that feeling of being in a future, really physically standing in a future that did not happen, was where that sort of started.
And then it was just sort of all the historical research that I’ve done for my non-fiction books, and the characters from true history that I’ve met along the way have sort of coalesced with that strange feeling at Empire State Plaza, and came together into this idea that sort of turned into a time-travel story inside-out. Epochalypse, like a lot of time-travel stories – most time-travel things you have one person or a group of people that go somewhere in time, that have some kind of adventure, they combatively contemplate some big question in history, and then they come back, and the story ends.
But in this one, something spontaneously makes everyone time-travel, and no one has any control over where they end up. And as a matter of fact, most people don’t survive it. Only a few tens of thousands do. But now we’re left to this world where there are people from – these people, culture, languages, civilizations, ideas that were never meant to co-exist, and never should have co-existed are suddenly co-existing. People are trying to figure out how to live together, and how to set history right again.
N: Yeah, that was one of the things that I really enjoyed about it. It kind of reminded me of why we all love cross-over comics, because it brings together all of our favorites together in one place. This is bringing all of these disparate times and epochs and different groups of people from across the span of time into one localized reality, which is really cool! One thing I really dug was how Shane Davis realized that with his art work. How closely did you work with him to sort of craft the book’s visual aesthetic?
JH: I didn’t really have the pleasure of working closely with Shane, because he’s on the East Coast and I’m on the West Coast. And also, you know, I’m very, very lucky to have had my first outing in fiction comics be with an artist like Shane Davis, who’s kind of a marquee name. So given all that he’s done before, he deserved having a free hand, and pretty much did have a free hand.
And I knew that the lord had sent me a live one when, in some of our initial discussions, he was talking about the Resynchronizer’s uniforms. He had a lot of very interesting ideas about law enforcement, and the sort of wardrobe of a repressive state’s force and stuff like that. Things like batons and body armor and the different psychological values, the sort of psychological operations that a riot suit would have against the masses, and so on and so forth. So he has some great ideas that really came to fruition with this, with the way that he made the heroes look.
And what I want to do is – getting back to this thing about a future that never happened – the sort of retro-futuristic styling of a lot of the prosperous vehicles, and sort of the buildings and the Resynchronizer’s uniforms and so forth. If it’s not just a – these things look like they’re out of Space: 1999 or Logan’s Run or something like that, that there is actually, as the series develops, you will see that there is a plot-oriented reason for that. That it’s not just a little homage thrown out there to the science fiction of the 60’s and 70’s, but there is a plot reason for it, and potentially even a sinister one.
N: Gotcha. I’m glad you said retro-futurism. That was literally the next word I was going to say. It has a nice – it feels out of time, but also a throwback to something more familiar. You mentioned that this is your first foray into fiction comics, and I was surprised, because it had a very natural progression to it. It read very well.
JH: Thank you!
N: What sort of challenges or unexpected has this shift from non-fiction to fiction presented?
JH: Honestly, fiction and science fiction, specifically, were my first love, and it was kind of through a crazy fluke that I wound up publishing non-fiction history in the first place. The other books really did come about because of my failure to sell Epochalypse 10 years ago. [chuckles] I had developed Epochalypse with another artist, and sort of shopped it around, and haunted comic book conventions, literally doing that thing to bring – you’re in New York or your in San Diego, and you’re in a meeting room with an editor you like, doing a presentation, then you run up and try to shove something in their hands afterwards, and you can see them trying to scurry away.
That’s where – Epochalypse was developed enough, say, around 2006, to be close to somebody saying “Yeah, let’s give this a go, let’s run this mother up a flagpole and see if it’ll fly,” but not quite there. It was, I guess the work, my fiction work, showed enough potential that when I met some publishers, when I got in with some publishers who wanted to do some non-fiction stuff, they said “We can’t do anything with this, but I see that you have this interest in history, these certain strengths as a writer – what else can you bring us that’s non-fiction?” And that’s how the other books happened.
But again, it was a failure to sell Epochalypse 10 years ago that made these other books – that gave them life in the first place.
N: Huh! Well, as Rust Cohle told us on True Detective, time is a flat circle, so it was bound to happen eventually. I’m glad that it did. I just have one last question for you – a little kookier. What anachronism would you most like to have?
JH: Oh, that’s a great question! I would like to have from myself from the future. I’m an avid cyclist, so I would love to have – I would love to see where bicycles are going in the next hundred years. So let’s say a bicycle from 2115.
Epochalypse #1 is available from Legendary Comics today.
(Editor’s note: Nerdist Industries is owned by Legendary, but retains editorial independence.)