Social Critique Through Science Fiction: Ezra Claytan Daniels Talks Upgrade Soul & BTTM FDRS

by Gary Catig

A few weeks back, Comic Arts LA was held during the weekend of December 8th – 9th. The show, now in its fifth year, is a celebration of independent comics. The majority of people exhibiting were lesser known creators promoting their self-published work but there were a few who have titles at some of the bigger publishers like Image and Boom! Studios. Writer and artist, Ezra Claytan Daniels, was also in attendance pushing his books, the most well know of which is Upgrade Soul. sat down with the talented creator to discuss his critically acclaimed graphic novel and his future project, BTTM FDRS.
Gary Catig: We’re currently here at Comic Arts LA. What brings you to the show in particular? I know you’re a local, but is there anything special about it?
Ezra Claytan Daniels: Yeah. This is LA’s local indie and alternative comic show. I definitely have to show up and represent at a place like this. It’s such a great convention. Really cool, super interesting people show up. It just feels like my kind of scene coming from the underground comic scene from Chicago is where I came up. It just feels like home.
GC: We’re approaching the end of the year and many sites are posting their “Best Of 2018” lists. Your graphic novel, Upgrade Soul, has been receiving critical acclaim. For our readers unfamiliar with the title, can you describe what it’s about?
ECD: Upgrade Soul is a cerebral science fiction story about cloning and elderly folks. Thematically, it’s about identity and sort of what defines a person’s identity. Is it the body that they live in or is it their attachable aspects of their mind and personality that defines a person? It’s a science fiction story but there are no aliens or spaceships. It’s a very heady closed room drama with a lot of conversations.

GC: You’ve mentioned it’s a science fiction story, so science plays a significant role in the story. How much research did you do before writing? One thing I found interesting was how the clones were resonating at the same electromagnetic frequency in the book. Was this a theory you came upon in your research or did you come up with it yourself?
ECD: The way it worked was I started writing the story and kind of made stuff up to fit the story. Then after I got a draft of the story, I actually reached out to my friend group to try to find people that had some expertise in the areas of science that I was dealing with. I actually found a genetic biologist to help do research and consult. I worked with a biologist and an optical engineer to work on some of the resonance stuff. Basically, I would write gibberish prose for the sections where the scientists were talking about the science. The science was working along the lines of the theme of the story. I knew what I wanted these things to be doing, I just didn’t know how to say those things in a way that made sense. I would send these people sections of the script and they would rewrite those sections where the scientists were talking.
GC: To make it more realistic.
ECD: Yeah, totally.
GC: You’ve been working on Upgrade Soul for quite a while. One of the previous iterations was an app, but Apple changed their operating system so it was scrapped. With the success of the book, would you consider bringing back that app or upgrading it to an augmented reality experience? I got into the book after the app, but it seemed like a cool, immersive experience with 3-D images and an accompanying soundtrack.
ECD: Upgrade Soul originally launched as an app in 2012. It was really well received. Got a lot of attention. We had a ton of downloads. It was one of the early, pioneering comic projects that was using the technology of mobile devices to take comics in interesting directions. The guy I collaborated with is Erik Loyer. He’s the developer and I did the comic book, obviously. We were invited to lecture all over the world, basically. We got free trips all over the world to lecture in Switzerland and some other places, Denmark. It wasn’t making that much money, so we put it on hiatus for a while to see if we could find a way to monetize it better. While it was on hiatus, Apple updated their IOS and then lost support for 500,000 apps. Upgrade Soul is one of the apps that doesn’t work on the new IOS. It was really heartbreaking that it’s not available, but it was never finished in the first place.
It’s definitely on the top of my priority list for things I want to do. Upgrade Soul was designed to be read as an app. All the art is designed in layers so it has this parallax 3-D effect when you move the device. The soundtrack by this experimental hip hop dude out of Pittsburgh named Alexis Gideon is a phenomenal soundtrack. By the way, the soundtrack is coming out on vinyl this summer from a record label in Chicago named, FPE. That’s going to happen in the summer, so I’m really trying to find funding to finish the app to coincide with the release of the record. We’re talking to a couple people. We’re talking to Lion Forge about maybe doing it. I definitely want it to happen because it’s such a more immersive experience to read it, with headphones on and things moving in really interesting ways. There’s no animation or anything like that. It honors the medium of comics intensely, so nothing happens unless you cause it to happen through your motion. It’s a really great immersive experience, so it’s definitely going to happen at some point.
GC: Moving on to your future projects, you were recently touring with Ben Passmore promoting both your of works. I know you guys are collaborating on something that comes out later next year. I was curious–how did the two of you team up together for that project?
ECD: I met Ben around 2013 or 14 at CAKE, the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo. I was tabling and Ben had just put out I think the first issue of his comic, DAYGLOAYHOLE, which was a self-published psychedelic sci-fi comic that he did. I was tabling and Ben was just walking around giving away free copies of his book to people that he thought were interesting. I saw him walking down the isle and he caught my eye because he looks just like me. I was like, “What’s this dude trying to do?”
I was interested to see what he was doing and when he got around to me, he gave me a copy of his book. I was floored by it. It was so amazing and I never heard of it before. I was like, “How was this guy doing stuff at this level and I don’t know who he is?” He came out of the blue. This guy is going to be a household name. His stuff is so good. It’s such next level.
Basically, I wanted to keep him close because I wanted to work with him on something. I knew he was going to be something really big and I wanted to work with him before he was too big for me to collaborate with. We collaborated on a four-page comic for Speculative Relationships, the sci-fi romance anthology put out by Scott Kroll and Tyrell Cannon out of Chicago. That was kind of the test to see how we worked together. It went really well. I had this script that I finished a while ago which was a sci-fi horror comedy set in Chicago.
I had been thinking about of drawing it myself, but after spending fifteen years on Upgrade Soul, I didn’t want to commit drawing another book. Not that my next one is going to take fifteen years, but I didn’t want to draw anything. I hadn’t even finished Upgrade Soul by that time. I asked him if he wanted to do it and he said, “Yeah”. We collaborated on it and two years later, he finished it. The book has been done for over a year. I was actually selling a short run of copies at CALA last year. I printed up a short run of 50 copies and sold those at CALA last year, and pitched it around. Fantagraphics picked it up so Fantagraphics is putting out in June.

GC: That project is called BTTM FDRS. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?
ECD: BTTM FDRS is like I said, a sci-fi horror comedy set in Chicago. It’s a story about gentrification, race and cultural appropriation. It’s a story about these two young, hipster girls who move into a blighted neighborhood on the south side of Chicago in a fictitious neighborhood called The Bottom Yards. They discover, once they move into this building, that there is a symbiotic creature living within the walls of the building. We were kind of pitching it as black Tremors, so it’s got that kind of vibe. It’s really fun and really fast like Tremors, but there’s this like deep layers of social critique throughout the whole thing. I think it will be a really fun book. Even if you’re not into the social justice aspect of it, I think, it’s a really fun story.
We want to thank Ezra for speaking with us. You can find him on Twitter, Instagram and his website.
Upgrade Soul is currently available from Lion Forge and BTTM FDRS will be released June 11, 2019 from Fantagraphics.

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