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Underwater in the 1930's - Wells Thompson returns to explore his DEPTHS

We welcome back Wells Thompson, a Comic Book Yeti contributor of years past, who sits down with Interviews Editor, Andrew Irvin, to discuss his expansive new period piece set deep in the marine environment, now taking preorders on ZOOP.


COMIC BOOK YETI: Wells, thanks for stepping around to the other side of the table in the Yeti Cave today. How’s everything going? It looks like your Zoop campaign for Depths is over a third of the way to full funding with more than two weeks to go!

WELLS THOMPSON: Great to be here! I’ve always wanted to be interviewed by my comic book alma mater. Crowdfunding-wise, things are good; we’re picking up momentum and people are starting to hear that we’re back, which, when switching platforms, is really important.

CBY: Now, I backed the campaign in its Kickstarter iteration, and I’ve backed it again on Zoop, as long-duration SCUBA systems are of particular personal interest, so the overarching premise of Depths definitely roped me in. Where did this concept originate? How long has it taken since inception to get ready for publication?

WT: My writing partner Dalton had the first images for Depths after we graduated and he got a really miserable job where he would go to work, come home, sleep, repeat. After a month or two, he broke down, moved back home, and started writing the first draft of Depths, which was a really incomplete version of what we have today. Since then, we’ve been working on it together and created something we think is really special. So, all told, it’s been about seven years we’ve been working on it and trying to find a way to make it happen.

CBY: It's great to see it coming to fruition! You’ve been joined in writing this graphic novel by Dalton, with art by J. Schiek, colors by Rajesh Kumar, and letters by Nathan Kempf. From other press, I know you met J. online, he brought Rajesh along, and this was the first project you wrote with Dalton, while Nathan has joined you on some of the subsequent projects you’ve written. Can you tell us what your collaboration has looked like, both practically and aesthetically, throughout the development/production process?

WT: All of my creative partners on this have been exceptionally generous and have given it their all. J. Schiek asked some really probing questions about the story and the time period that wound up defining the look of the book--heavy inks and claustrophobic panels. Rajesh Kumar gave us two different versions of colors for the first couple of pages to see what worked best and we opted for a murkier, bluer look underwater and a brighter, warmer look above. Nathan turned around a style of lettering we hadn’t seen him do before to match the retro 30s, Great Gatsby-type look for the dialogue that I think really elevates the words in a way we didn’t expect. All this, and we’ve never heard each other's voices, which is odd to think about.

As for Dalton, it feels weird to talk about him as separate from myself when it comes to the writing process. At this point, so much time has passed and so many versions of this story have been worked into what exists today that it’s difficult to tell what I came up with vs what Dalton came up with. It really is our story in a literal sense, we’ve worked so closely together that it would be disingenuous to say one or the other wrote it without crediting the other.

CBY: It's good to hear the process was so well-integrated and communicative. So we’ve talked a bit about the team involved - can you tell us a bit about your inspirations as a writer, and the common reference points for the visual vocabulary of Depths? What creative inspirations bubbled to the surface when building out this title?

WT: I love the ocean. The first thing I wanted to do when I was a little kid was study sharks, to the point I ran dry way too many ink cartridges printing out shark photos and fact sheets to make these binders for reference. Most of the visual inspiration for the book just comes from actual research into the animals and topography that exist at certain levels of depth in the ocean. Narratively, I draw a lot from contemporary American literature, so Fitzgerald and Hemmingway, Vonnegut and Heller, with Jennifer Egan as an especially modern example. I also took a lot of visual inspiration from space movies like The Martian and Gravity and, of course, Blue Planet, the documentary series narrated by the most soothing British man in history.

CBY: Sir David Attenborough is certainly a global treasure. From the introductory pages, the chronological placement in the 1930’s, the eerie submarine setting, and the celebratory scene between James and Emil - it hearkens back to when I first played the original Bioshock many years ago. How do you want to set the world of Depths apart from other graphic novels and the media landscape at large?

WT: I think the atmosphere of Bioshock isn’t a bad comparison to make, but where that draws its horror from libertarian survivalism, Depths is more about the isolation and loneliness that comes from separation, both physically in being trapped underwater, and from depression, survivor's guilt, and loss. The fact that there’s not a ton of prominent graphic novels set underwater is a bit of a mystery to me. It is such a diverse place with lots of potential for storytelling, and I think just using that helps the book stand out. We also knew going in that we wanted color to play a prominent role in the book, being overwhelmingly blue to help communicate the weight of the water and the role of depression in the book. That and J’s style, which is grounded and heavy, makes the book look way different than anything else I’m reading right now.

CBY: I am curious about how hard the science of this science fiction has gotten - I’ve only looked at the first several pages, so if I’m trodding into spoiler-heavy territory, feel free to reel it back in your response - how does Emil eat while underwater? The “SC” in SCUBA stands for “self-contained” so can you share a bit more about the operational realities you’ve incorporated into your planning, and perhaps the narrative value this background research and technological consideration has had toward strengthening the story of Depths?

WT: The functionality of the suit does play into the narrative, but we also aren’t kidding ourselves about the viability of this technology. The idea is that, similar to a submarine, an electrical current separates oxygen and hydrogen from the water, creating breathable air; he eats using a machine in the suit that turns fish into mercury free paste; and there’s some unexplained mechanism that protects against nitrogen poisoning and the bends. Narratively, all this amounts to a situation where Emil is stuck but not helpless. He’s not going to die in a matter of days or even years, he’s going to survive as long as he as the will to, and it’s on Emil to face the impossible odds of escaping this oceanic prison he’s now in. It mirrors how a lot of us feel about our lives, or more recently, how we felt about the pandemic--stuck in place, surviving, but only just so, with real change feeling so distant and difficult that it’s functionally impossible to achieve.

CBY: The topic of Depths is weighty, indeed, and the opportunity to explore a range of deep-seated human fears is ample. On a conceptual level, does the idea of being lost under the sea fill you more with claustrophobia, given the tight, confined spaces you’d be subjected to, or agoraphobia, through the fear of this expansive, unknown environment on the seabed?

WT: Or thalassophobia, as anyone who’s played Subnautica will express. Personally, the claustrophobic feel of the suit and the murkiness of the water is what sticks with me, but I think the beauty of the material is that it engages in all of the above and will likely work for everyone in some way, shape, or form. It definitely amplifies the themes of isolation and grief in any instance, which is exactly why we chose this setting in the first place.

CBY: I should've known their already be an appropriately named phobia, so now Depths can serve thalassophobia's stature in the broader cultural lexicon. Since this story falls within both a specific time period and focuses in large part on an isolated setting, does it exist in a narrative space separate from your other work, or is it part of an interconnected narrative universe? Are there any nods to other titles or references fans of your other work (or Dalton’s) might pick up that others may not?

WT: I don’t see this as part of the same world as MechaTon or Frankenstein the Unconquered, but there are other stories that are a part of this world. I’m not going to bury the lede, this is Emil’s story and once it’s done, it’s done and we won’t be exploring his character further, but I think this story and these characters do affect the world their living in and I think other people will be influenced by him and his friends. Whether it’s Emil’s ingenuity and resilience or James and Grace’s unwillingness to give in and relentlessly search for their friend, that story is going to speak to people both in their own universe and in the one we live in.

CBY: There’s often a dialogue about how we have a better understanding of the surface of the moon than the world below the surface of our oceans. With fishing vessels and marine biology research efforts finding a wider menagerie of new deep sea species from the abyssopelagic, benthic, and demersal zones of the ocean, the configuration of biology found in marine life forms can be confounding and horrifying. What are the deep sea creatures that most preoccupy your thoughts?

WT: How long do we have? As I indicated before, I absolutely adore the ocean and sharks in particular, so I love learning about, for example, sleeper sharks that live near volcanic waters thought too hot to be hospitable to anything, or giant squid and how there’s actually far more species of deep sea colossal squid than we originally thought. There’s also the viperfish, which is a few inches long but basically all teeth, and cookie cutter sharks, which use bioluminescence to trick larger fish into thinking it’s prey, then latches onto them and carving out a bite sized chunk of whatever was trying to eat it. That dumb meme about the Roman Empire is how I think about the deep ocean, it comes to my mind far more than I’d like to admit.

CBY: You've just reminded me of the Lisa Frank Marine Biology meme, which also seems applicable to a degree. Without spoiling anything for our readers, does the graphic novel of Depths represent a fully contained narrative, or are you leaving an opening for subsequent stories within the same narrative world? What ideas have you come up with that didn’t quite make it into the current page count for this edition that we might be able to expect in some other form at some later date?

WT: Depths is a two part graphic novel and once it’s done, it’s done, but we do have a spiritual sequel in the form of a 1980s road trip with a brother and sister looking to scatter their parents’ ashes. There’s a lot more that we could do with the underwater setting, but this is the story we wanted to tell with these characters and I don’t have any regrets with leaving it with them. Maybe we’ll come back to do something wildly different eventually, but for now, this is all you can expect.

CBY: I'm glad to know there's a finite arc, and readers can look forward to the satisfaction of tying off loose ends with the characters. We’ve dug into your influences on Depths, but could you share for our readers what you’ve been checking out lately that has caught your attention; other comics, films, art, literature, music, etc.?

WT: I feel like I’m reading more and more comics that make me want to rethink how I even approach storytelling, and there are way too much to list here. These Savage Shores was one of the most gripping horror narratives I’ve read in a while, Home Sick Pilots is everything comics should be and more, Sunstone turns smut into one of the most sincere love stories ever written, and A. Guardian from Eastin DeVerna turns incredibly dense lore and world-building into something truly compelling.

Film and TV wise, I recently watched Fall of the House of Usher and it really grabbed me and made me start thinking about adaptation as an artform. Not sure if I’ll truly commit to doing anything with that, but I said the same thing about Romance and now I’m in the middle of fulfilling The Catskin and the Rose with Rachel Distler, so who knows.

CBY: That ought to keep our readers occupied with new material for a bit while they way fir their copies of Depths to arrive! Wells, thanks for joining us in the Yeti Cave - we’ve linked to the Zoop campaign, but please let our readers know where they may find your other publications and social media below:

WT: It’s been a pleasure! I’m on substack with the newsletter Comics, Cats, & Cocktails, where we discuss all of those things and you can find my books on my personal website, as well as on Ko-Fi.

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