My Friends Call Me Hell – An Interview with MILTON LAWSON, Creator of the THOMPSON HELLER Miniseries
Updated: Jul 6, 2021
Stefano Junior chats with Milton Lawson, writer of the science-fiction “Thompson Heller: Detective Interstellar” miniseries.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Within each tale of Thompson Heller, you’ve managed to thread a number of ethical concepts within a rhythmic and exhilarating romp in each issue. How did you go about structuring your narrative to achieve that?
MILTON LAWSON: Well, it's partly by accident. The very first Thompson Heller story started out as an eight-page short. I didn’t have enough room in that version to grapple with any ethical dimensions of the storytelling. But then when I got the opportunity to expand it into a three-issue miniseries, that aspect of the character was always inherent and I considered that an important starting point of each one of the adventure mysteries.
CBY: “My Friends Call Me Hell” is immediately iconic as a catchphrase. Was that something that emerged after naming him?
ML: No, I completely stole that. The inspiration of Thompson Heller was an exercise in the Comics Experience Workshop. The exercise involved creating a new character by combining a known character or another fictional character and putting them in a different context or setting, or a blend of multiple characters.
So, the constituent elements of Thompson Heller are one part journalist Christopher Hitchens and one part Detective Philip Marlowe. The Hitchens side of it – all of Hitchens's friends and allies would call him “Hitch,” and so I felt having a shortened handle for his confidants seemed appropriate. And since his name is Heller, “Hell” just sort of has that punch to it.
CBY: Terrawave and the despoilment of environment and species feels appropriately concurrent with issues our environment faces today. Do you imagine a future where this conclusion of toxicity and extinction can be averted? And do you believe that art can affect change in an issue of this magnitude?
ML: I sure hope so, because if not, then what are we doing here? I know that I have personally been moved in small but important fashions. The choices I make in my life – I’ll think about a similar dilemma I've encountered in great fiction or film. I hope that those choices are improved by those resonant moments that I’ve experienced in art. So as a creator I’m hoping to do the same but without being pedantic or preachy. I’ll never know if I succeed in any given project or story.
To the first part of your story, I guess if I were at Las Vegas, placing odds I would say the odds are against us in not suffering significant damage due to our collective ass dragging as a species to get our act together, but I also have a lot of hope in human ingenuity even if I don’t in human politics at the moment. I do think utter catastrophe can be averted but we have a lot of work to do.
CBY: Ghosting, the plight of artificial intelligence (Elbee) and the linking-up or fusion of human consciousness with artificial intelligence additionally reflect our continued reliance, addiction, and expanded virtual experience of reality today. Do you feel linking-up and the sentience of AI are inevitable downstream?
ML: I think that its an inevitable experiment that certain quarters of human society is gonna cross that threshold whether its just enthusiasts, transhumanists, or maybe a future AI cult, or folks who want to escape death, like the baseball star Ted Williams wanted his head frozen in the hopes that he could somehow achieve immortality. So I think it is inevitable that some form of this fusion will occur. Whether or not it is the ultimate destiny of our species, I think is a fascinating question. Whether we all just upload into the cloud or whether we sort of branch off into different aspects of pure biology, mixed biology and technology, or pure technology is unknown.
I think those concepts are ripe for storytelling and imagination. I’m always fascinated by those storytelling aspects and there have been a lot of them recently. Almost all of them find an interesting angle on the premise, so I just find it a useful setting to place a story in.
CBY: You use “Carbon Pride vs Bot Lovers” as an allegory for prejudice and the splintering of ideologies through the lens of a dystopian society struggling to keep up with scientific advancement. What inspired exploration of this topic?
ML: This is my first book, so I don’t have a lot of experience on where to draw the line in transparency and so I’m just gonna be fully candid. When I decided to go full-time into comics, it was about 11 years ago. Very early on in becoming a comics writer, my favorite comics series of the era was Congressman John Lewis’s “March” series, and every other year or so when a new volume was released, it happened nearly every time I was at San Diego Comic Con, so it became the event of the year for me. Constantly being immersed in [the] story of the Civil Rights struggle was integral in my comics reading and was in my head space.
At the moment that I wrote this issue, I had a number of aspects of prejudice, grief and death in my life that fed into the story.
CBY: Let’s talk about Arch Bahvi and the rise of religiosity in a futuristic society rife with technological reliance and Heller’s atheism and determination to debunk the Citadel. Will he ever achieve that goal or will he be converted to it? Can you tell us or, at least, give us a hint?
ML: The hint is I hope that I have a lot of opportunities to tell additional Thompson Heller stories. I think the format lends itself to Heller solving a variety of cases and locations for him to visit. If we get to make the next three issues, I’ll say I’ll both definitively answer that question and also leave it somewhat ambiguous. I hope that then the spirit in which I answer that question itself is very satisfying for readers even if it's not objectively definitive, and I do feel that part of approach to that is the source inspiration of the character. But I’ll say Heller has a little bit more heart than Hitch, so the direction will be less absolute. Let’s put it that way.
CBY: Speaking of potential future installments, are there current plans for any? When can we expect more?
ML: So, in the immediate future there are three bonus short stories that were not included in the original issues. The trade paperback edition contains three self-contained additional stories and they are offered up by a wide range of talent and I think each one is a fantastic story. Combined together, they run the same page length as a full issue, so it's like getting a bonus fourth issue. Then in the medium to long term, there is a hope to make three more issues. Please follow my social media where I can keep you posted on production updates.
CBY: I already do, and I’m happy to spread the word.
ML: Haha! Great!
CBY: Will Vivi get a backstory?
ML: I don’t think Vivi will get a backstory, but she will continue to be connected to the universe in important ways.
CBY: Will the reef runners and other environmental activists team up with Heller again?
ML: At least one of them will.
CBY: Will we find out if Hell is motivated by money, morality, or duty?
ML: I hope that everyone will have their own opinion and that that opinion will adjust as they follow the character. But it will remain ambiguous.
CBY: Will we ever delve into how he came to his disdainful and irreverent disposition in the first place?
ML: Um, that I do want to delve into but it’s not planned for the next three issues, but I hope so at some point.
CBY: Tell me about the D.E.M. – will we see more of its use in further adventures? What does the Dark Energy represent to you and what is its physical counterpart in the real world?
ML: I would say at the moment it’s not planned to return, but over the course of three issues, I have found utility in revisiting aspects that you lay in an earlier part of the story but then you hit a story beat further down the line and you realize something you’ve already created is perfect for the moment to extend. The people who have read issue 2 and 3 will recognize where I've done that very thing. I don’t plan on bringing it back but never say never.
Regarding what the dark energy represents, I was kind of going for dark energy physics. This is still a fascinating area of cosmology and it just so happens that a couple of weeks ago, there was a new theory that was present in direct opposition to another theory that had been presented a year ago. Both developments happened after I wrote the issue.
I doubt I’ll live long enough to see a definitive answer in the realm of physics. I hope when the James Web telescope and future telescopes launch, we’ll start getting some answers.
Right now, it's a massive question mark in cosmology that we don’t know the answer to.
"Thankfully, I managed to team up with someone several levels ahead of me in creativity regarding Dave Chisholm. Dave had already had a number of projects previously published by the time we collaborated, so many times over the course of the Heller scripts I wrote him into a corner after corner, and panel after impossible panel-I don’t think many other artists would have been able to achieve that, but he pulled it off every single time."
CBY: It’s one that I imagine is going to lead to more questions.
ML: Right? (laughs)
CBY: Hell has a penchant for inadvertently not getting paid and, combined with his alcoholism, it feels like an homage to sci-fi hard-boiled destructive detectives like John Constantine and Jake Dekkard. What influences did you draw from in designing him? How do you find a balance between drawing from the trappings of the genre sandbox you’re playing in and create a story that’s new and unique?
ML: I think I got lucky with a couple of short-hands. My main inspiration for that aspect of Heller actually comes from Jim Rockford of “The Rockford Files”. That dude was constantly living out of his trailer, doing lots of pro bono gigs, helping out ladies that either had their husbands leave them or were financially incapacitated; that’s partly where that came from.
Also, I spent a lot of time dealing with a lot of journalists at one of my day jobs in the mid-2000/mid-2010s. I worked at a website that hosted discussions from a diverse array of journalists. Hitch was, in fact, one of our guests once.
So I got to see some of the behind-the-scenes gossip of intellectual life and how weird and shoestringy some of the finances are. A lot of some of our most talented thinkers in the world sort of bounce from gig to gig to gig. They seem to have a lot of feast and famine; they have some certain sources that’ll come with a truckload of money for a while and then there’s some really lean times. So I felt that aspect kind of inspired that part of Heller's reality.
CBY: What was working with Dave Chisholm and the extended art team like? How does your dynamic and process work?
ML: Working with Dave and Fabian were two of the greatest pleasures I’ve had working in comics. Starting out on the indie scene, I’m nowhere a fully formed writer yet and still have a ton to learn, and usually at that level, the artists a writer gets to work with are also at that level of the learning curve. It can be very frustrating because both parties can see better in our heads than what comes out.
Thankfully, I managed to team up with someone several levels ahead of me in creativity regarding Dave Chisholm. Dave had already had a number of projects previously published by the time we collaborated, so many times over the course of the Heller scripts I wrote him into a corner after corner, and panel after impossible panel. I don’t think many other artists would have been able to achieve that, but he pulled it off every single time. Fabian was such an easy joy to work with; he’s the hidden gem in the team and hasn’t had industry recognition yet, but the people that open the book recognize he has an amazing eye for color.
I also have to give credit to writer, Rick Quinn; he’s kind of a jack-of-all-trades guy. He also does some design work. He came up with the original color palette test for the very first page which differed from my vision. When I saw that, I immediately thought he had a better idea than I had. We passed that on to Fabian who turned [it] into a color mission statement for the whole book and it turned out very well.
CBY: How was it working on the 3 short stories with the individual creative teams? Was it odd seeing your baby written by others, or were you involved in the plotting?
ML: Each story was kind of a different experience. All of them were a joy. The one I wrote, “The 9 Circles of Heller,” was a back-to-basics kind of introduction for folks and I teamed up with artist Kelsey Ramsay. She has this fantastic sense of depth and a really great sort of compositional approach.
“Immaculate Record” both written and drawn by Renton Hawkey, I was a total spectator to. The script arrived in my inbox one day and I thought “Oh, wow, this is awesome.” He said he’d draw it too and I thought that was like receiving a gift. “Bender” was similar, in that I got a script from Rick Quinn. Both Rick and Renton had both served as unofficial editors on the series, so they were intimately familiar with every draft and script of all the other issues. They knew the character as well as I do. I was slightly more involved with “Bender” as I linked Rick and artist Christopher Doray and provided art feedback. Regarding “seeing your baby written by others,” I think I should be jealous. “Bender,” that Rick Quinn wrote, is in my opinion the best story yet told for Heller which is kind of frustrating, but I’m not jealous. I’m so happy and proud that it's out there.
CBY: It’s certainly visually arresting.
CBY: Anything additional to add?
ML: I appreciate that you read and engaged with the material so deeply and that the Comic Book Yeti website promotes independent comics work. I want people to know that although we talked about a lot of complicated topics, at its core, Thompson Heller is a mystery series. Each issue is sort of one-and-done and, though you don’t have to read it chronologically, it works better if read that way.
CBY: I think that’s a testament to your writing and the creative talents that collaborated with you. Despite the complex themes, the books read very easily and are very entertaining.
Thanks so much for your time and for your answers to our questions. Where can people find you online?
ML: I’m on Twitter at @Citizenmilton, a newsletter at milton.substack.com, a podcast at “Milton’s Comics and Culture Radar”—where I interview a range of creative folks both in comics and other disciplines like film as well.
CBY: Excellent! And where is Thompson Heller available to purchase?
ML: Right now it is available to pre-order through Previews. The street date is June 30th, so you can call any comic shop and request an order of the Thompson Heller paperback.
[NOTE: Apologies from the editor here for being late, folks! Check the Thompson Heller site for more details on how to purchase.]
CBY: Looking forward to that and reading more.
ML: Thank you very much.