‘White Noise Is A Fire In Which We Burn Flack From Our Stories’: Meet The Gang Behind The Bethesda Comics At Titan

by Oliver MacNamee

 

With the announcement recently that Titan Comics and game developer Bethesda are partnering up to produce a line of books based on such popular franchises as Wolfenstein 2, Quake and The Evil Within I got in contact with the guys writing these series, Dan Watters, Ram V and Ryan O’Sullivan, to ask them about their work on the different titles, their new writers’ studio, White Noise, and how it came about. I mean, we’ve all heard of artists’ studios, but writers forming a studio? That’s a rather new one on me. So, sit back, grab a drink and be ready for a meaty, and inspirational, interview.

Olly MacNamee: Hiya, guys. Before we get into the individual titles you’re all working on for Titan Comics in partnership with Bethesda, I’m keen to know how you all came together to form the writers’ studio, White Noise? What was the impetus for this collaboration? 

Ram V: I met Ryan (O’Sullivan), for the first time, at Thoughtbubble 2015. Dan (Watters) and Caspar (Wijngaard) had just put out Limbo form Image and we all hung out at the mid-con party. You know what it’s like—bunch of writers/comic creators getting together. The usual shop-talk happened, we exchanged influences and kept in touch, began exchanging work and feedback. We realised we all came at comics and writing, in general, from a similar place and had similar influences.

Alex Paknadel, came onboard soon after. Ryan and I ran into him at London Super Con and the whole Turncoat vs Turncoat (they both have comics out with that name – Olly) thing was amusing. He’s just a lovely man and an incredible writer. We realised that we all got along and had helpful opinions on each other’s work. At this point, we considered an anthology and we thought it made sense to officially state that we were a working group and that we stood by the books that were produced. White Noise was born.

We’ve gone from there to writing books at Titan. And we all have other things lined up that you could say have been through the ‘workshop’ at the studio. It’s a place to nurture stories and ideas.

Ryan O’Sullivan: I’ve always admired the idea of a writers’ circle advancing through the trenches together. The British Invasion of American comics in the 80s and 90s are an obvious example of a group of writers finding value in collectivism. Take it back further and you’ve got J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the Inklings. Then there’s Einstein, Russel, Wittgenstein and the rest of the Vienna Circle. Hell, go back even further and you’ve got Percy,  Mary Shelley, and Byron all taking holidays together.

Who knows what the future holds for White Noise. I’m pretty sure we won’t reshape western civilisation like the names I just listed above. But I do know we’re going to make some bomb-ass comic books.

Plus, writing can be a lonely business. Having these guys around makes it feel less so.

OM: A lot of comic book readers will be well aware of artists who have established studios, but how does this work for you as writers: the practicalities, the day-to-day running, the chances for bouncing ideas off one another?

Dan Watters: Ram’s just said that it’s a place to nurture stories, but honestly sometimes it’s great to have people whose chops you really trust to tear chunks out of your work. Comics is a small and pretty tight-knit community, so everyone tends to be very supportive of each other; which is great, but not always when it comes down to making your craft as honed and nonsense-free as it possibly can be. Each of these guys is more than happy to unleash on my pages knowing that they aren’t going to hurt my feelings, generally with the kind of kick up the backside I need (i.e. “Okay, but do you need ALL four of these pages of pontification?”). I’m being somewhat glib, but genuinely, to me White Noise is a fire in which we burn away flack from our stories.

RO: We also feed off-of each other’s momentum. When you’re a comic writer going it alone, you have no tangible way of benchmarking where you should be at, career-wise. Anytime one of us has a bit of success, it’s motivation for the other three to keep pushing. Being part of this group helps me avoid complacency and encourages healthy competition.

RV: I understand, at most times, it makes complete sense to safeguard your idea. And too much feedback when you’re writing can be counterproductive. Second guessing yourself is an awful pit. But when you have a circle of people you can trust, ideas can grow and flourish from having the right sort of bounce-back. Good feedback spurs new thought rather than causing you to reconsider old ones. I think that’s what we get with the studio. A lot of it is exchanging writing and stories back and forth and like Ryan said, we all keep each other sharp and enthusiastic about challenging ourselves.

OM: So, onto the newly announced slate of comics, based on some very popular video games from Bethesda. How did you all get involved; through being a studio or otherwise?

RO: Well, both Dan Watters and myself had done video game comic work for Titan before, on Assassin’s Creed and Dawn of War respectively. We’re both big gamers, so I’m guessing that’s why they approached us? I’m not sure, although it’s a pretty safe bet that if you’re looking to put together a comic based on a video game, one of us will have played it religiously. Ram’s a different beast entirely–the guy is exploding in the comic scene right now. From Black Mumba on Kickstarter, to Brigands over at Action Lab, to Grafity’s Wall at Unbound, and a bazillion other comics for various Indian Publishers. I guess Titan wanted to get a little taste of the Ram pie.

Plus he’s a gamer too. As if the odds weren’t already stacked enough in his bloody favour.

OM: Were you at all aware of Quake, Wolfenstein 2 or The Evil Within beforehand? Wolfenstein and its central protagonist, William ‘B.J.’ Blazkowicz, for instance, have been around since 1981! There’s a lot of history to consider, one imagines. Are any of you gamers? What’s your take on these games? 

RV: I think it’s safe to say we’re all gamers. And I’d be surprised if anyone around my age who had a computer as a teenager hadn’t heard of Quake or Wolfenstein. Those are genre-defining titles. And I remember The Evil Within from back when the first title came out. I’ve been a fan of Mikami’s games in the past and I’m somewhat of a survival horror buff. I used to be a hardcore gamer back in my college days–LAN battles, networked sessions, MMOs and FPSes back when networked gaming wasn’t nearly what it is today.

With Quake, there was certainly a lot of history to consider. The previous games haven’t really been very story-driven but the characters in Quake Champions each have their own intriguing back-story and we explore these in the comic and tie them in to in-game lore. This has given me an opportunity to tread into unexplored territory, here. A lot of these characters have of course been around since the very first Quake game and so tying all of that into the back-story has been exciting. All of this is set against familiar Quake territory of course–frantic action in a bullet-storm frag-fest.

And being part of the studio, I get sneak peeks into things everyone’s working on. I know Ryan and Dan have some utterly delicious comics cooking for Wolfenstein and The Evil Within and I’m excited to see them come out!

DW: Yeah, obviously Wolfenstein has had a fair few incarnations, and I think we’ve found what I think is a pretty cool way to tap into both sides of the franchise; the pulpy Weird War Tales style one packed with eldritch things that goosestep in the night, and the slightly more grounded and harrowing direction that Machine Games and Bethesda have been taking the franchise in-which seems important in the current climate, quite frankly.

OM: Now, these are in-canon stories and recognisable franchises too. How does that work when scripting such a comic when compared to writing other comics?

DW: Well if we’re talking creator-owned vs. licenses, I guess partly what we’re talking about is restriction, right? I can’t talk for the others, but for me comics always has been a medium of those; I mean, every page has literal borders on it, so if they’re not something that you get excited about the prospect of working with, you’re probably in the wrong medium. Unless you’re a writer/artist (which I’m definitely not) you’re always collaborating with somebody, even when it’s just you and a single artist, such as how Caspar Wijngaard and I created Limbo. Comics pretty much thrives on a little ego, death and daring killing.

On the other hand I can undermine myself by saying that Bethesda have been really cool at letting us run wild with Wolfenstein, and the book touches on everything from telluric horror to Romantic poetry to a healthy dollop of Freud, alongside the prerequisite and very cathartic Nazi-shooting.

The pressure of engaging with this stuff is another story, of course. What Ram and I are dealing with in particular are decades old franchises with rich histories, and obviously you want to do right by the people who love those games, but for me a bigger pressure was definitely in the real world content of what Wolfenstein deals with, especially as part of my story is set in the 1940s.

I obviously didn’t want to make what should be quite a cathartic book a massive downer, but I did return to Dori Laub and Hannah Arendt, who wrote extensively on trauma after the war, to try and make the book at least a little theoretically resonant and pointed. Also, Alex sent me a copy of D.M. Thomas’ (wonderful and harrowing) The White Hotel which has had a lot to do with how I’ve approached this.

RV: Yeah, I’m going to echo Dan, here. I am very aware that I’m writing for a game that’s been around since I was a teenager. So, there is definitely that sense of wanting to do right by the fans. But Quake Champions is a bit special because these back-stories haven’t really been explored previously. That makes it particularly delicious because I’m working with new material and trying to make it link back to what’s already out there in a subtle and exciting way. It’s also an interesting opportunity to flesh out and humanize these characters in a way that’s new and unique to the comics.

RO: I find that when writing licensed comics I tend to play with the comics medium more. You have less creative control over a comic written around a property that someone else invented, so one way of ensuring you still get a creative “buzz” from it is to use the comics medium itself in ways you haven’t before. The trick is to really engage with whatever you’re working on and investigate what makes people become hardcore fans of it. THAT is what you write about.

OM: And then, how do these titles fit into continuity? Where does each of these titles start off?

RO: The Evil Within comic takes place between The Evil Within and The Evil Within 2. One of the big challenges with transmedia comics is that you can’t rely on people having played the games–your comic needs to be a standalone story. Similarly, there are people out there who are going to play the games and never read the comics, so you can’t create a story in the comic that would have a huge impact on the meta-narrative. The “hierarchy” of importance always puts the games first.

Which is fine, nature of the business. But it does lead you to ask the question–how can I make this story impactful if it can’t have a big impact on the overall story of the franchise? Well, the way I answered that particular question with The Evil Within was to tell a small story. Something personal, away from the larger over-arching stories of the game. I wanted to explore Sebastian’s mind. I wanted to know how he dealt with the events of the first game. He was walking around inside someone else’s mind, fighting monsters, and constantly on the run for his life. What does that do to someone? How does he react to that? I know the second game jumps straight back into the action, so I thought a comic series that gave Sebastian a breather and chance to reflect would be interesting.

DW: Yeah, we’re in continuity with the New Order/ New Colossus games, and will be exploring the impact of the Nazi takeover of America on ordinary people, as well as taking a moment to interrogate the roots of fascist ideologies–in some ways, this is a book very much about digging, which I guess will make sense when you see it. I also wanted to take a look at long-time Wolfenstein lead BJ Blazkowicz from the perception of other characters; how he must seem this unstoppable, barely-human Nazi killing machine, more of a thing of myth or urban folklore than a real man.

We’re also telling a story set in the 40s more in line with the Old Blood game, another previously unseen Blazkowicz mission. So expect explosions aplenty.

OM: And, what next for White Noise Studios?

DW: Things. All of us have creator-owned announcements coming with assorted publishers, hopefully very soon.

Alex has been busy traveling, and I believe lovingly-yet-acerbically interrogating,the Universe with the 11th Doctor for Titan’s Doctor Who, and we’re both working on our second arc of Assassin’s Creed: Uprising, tying up the Phoenix Project plotline that has been building through the games.

On my end, my first issue of The Shadow, co-written with Si Spurrier, comes out in September from Dynamite, and I really can’t wait for people to get their hands on it. It’s a really sharp take on the character that I think/hope really cuts to the core of a lot of present day issues. Really chuffed to be aboard for it.

RO: I’ve got a few more things cooking at Titan. Nothing I can talk publicly about just yet, unfortunately. Plus, as Dan mentioned, I’ve got two new creator-owned series coming from two publishers I haven’t worked with before. So yeah, plenty more on the horizon from moi.

I’m also considering a return to Kickstarter in some capacity next year. It’s where my comics career began, and I’d like to give back to the amazing community there.

RAM: The Quake Champions books are out from August onward, of course. I’m working on Grafity’s Wall right now which is being crowdfunded at Unbound (shameless plug: www.unbound.com/books/grafitys-wall). I’ve got Ruin of Thieves, the follow up to Brigands, out soon from Action Lab. Then two more creator owned projects after that. One greenlit and the other with an impending announcement. I’m also tying up my series, Aghori, back in India. I might dip my toes into some prose at the end of the year, time permitting.

There are also rumblings of a White Noise anthology/episodic thing that just won’t go away. So, I wager there’ll be something there, soon!