"Well, What if There is No Tomorrow? There Wasn't One Today." – An Interview with IBRAHIM MOUSTAFA
Ibrahim Moustafa joins CBY Interview Content Editor Jimmy Gaspero in the Yeti Cave to discuss his newest OGN with Humanoids: RetroActive. Ibrahim talks about his writing process, time travel movies that inspired him, and the hope that justice can be more restorative than damaging in the long run.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Ibrahim, thank you so much for joining me here in the Yeti Cave to talk about RetroActive, your newest graphic novel published by Humanoids. How have you been doing?
IBRAHIM MOUSTAFA: Thanks so much for having me! I’m hanging in there!
CBY: This is your 2nd book with Humanoids, the first being Count, a science-fiction retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, which was incredible, by the way. You now have the band back together with color artist Brad Simpson and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, can you tell me what RetroActive is all about and why you wanted to follow-up Count with this story?
IM: Thank you so much. Yes! Very happy to get the band back together for this one. Brad and Hass did incredible, career-high work on this one if I may say. RetroActive is a genre mashup, a-la “James Bond x Groundhog Day.” It’s about an agent working for the Bureau of Temporal Affairs (essentially the CIA of time travel), who is investigating unknown entities that have been showing up at random points in history. When he gets close to an answer as to what is going on, he gets put into a time loop; trapped in a repeating day, living and dying over and over. He has to find a way to break free of the loop, and thwart the attempts of these anomalies before they can enact their evil plan. I had several ideas swimming around in my head for what my next book would be, and a big part of making the decision on which would be the final choice has to do with which idea fits best within the publisher’s overall output, and what might be missing. Humanoids didn’t have anything like RetroActive, and it was a book I was really excited about making, so it really turned out to be the perfect fit.
CBY: What’s your writing process like? Do you outline the entire story first before you start scripting? At what point in the process do you begin work on character designs and panel layouts?
IM: I always start with a complete synopsis; after writing the initial pitch to get the book approved comes the part where you have to prove to yourself that you can actually do it, haha. So, I’ll start by writing the story out as if I had just seen a movie of it and am recounting it to a friend, scene for scene. This helps me get all of the broad strokes in order. From there, I’ll break it down into somewhat of an outline format where I’m pacing it out by the page, making sure each section is ending with a page-turn moment, etc. It’s really hard not to just start writing it full-on here, especially when dialogue starts floating into your head. So I’ll make notes of certain lines that I want to hold onto, and then try to refocus back to outlining. From there, I go to full-script. This whole process was especially necessary with RetroActive because I had to keep all of the time-travel stuff straight.
CBY: Speaking of panel layouts, I read in an interview you did with Broken Frontier back in 2015 that you “love playing with less conventional page layouts.” Reading RetroActive I would say that is still the case. The use of overlapping panels, in particular during the action sequences adds to the pacing of the story. Without spoiling the story, was there any section of RetroActive that was trickier to put together?
IM: Wow, thanks for doing that kind of background work! I really do love playing with the panel layouts on every page, and each one is a new challenge, like trying to solve a puzzle. I really enjoy it with action sequences because I like trying to find ways to make them as fluid as possible. One thing I did with this book was reuse certain page layouts for different scenes in order to call back to previous moments, to really emphasize the theme of time repeating itself throughout the book. Fortunately that meant that it wasn’t so much tricky as it was really fun.
CBY: You are, as with Count, writer and artist for RetroActive. Do you approach storytelling, whether that’s in the plot, pacing or panel layouts, differently when you are both writer and artist as opposed to when you might be solely the artist as in High Crimes with writer Christopher Sebela?
IM: Absolutely. It’s far, far easier to work from my own ideas than it is to essentially guess what someone else was visualizing when they wrote a script a few weeks prior. I do really love the collaboration with folks like Christopher. There’s a different kind of magic when you’re the sole architect; you get to play to your own strengths, plan ahead better, and make changes on the fly if you need to without consulting with another creative who may disagree.
CBY: After reading RetroActive, I was thinking about some of the other comics you’ve written, Count, Jaeger, and even James Bond: Solstice to see if any common themes emerged. At first I thought revenge or vengeance, and maybe it’s coupled with that, but redemption seems far more relevant, and there’s certainly that in RetroActive too. What is it about redemption as a theme or these characters that are seeking it that compels you to tell these stories?
IM: I think it’s a hope that justice can be more restorative than damaging in the long run. I really love a good revenge/vengeance story, but I think there has to be a lesson learned or ground gained for a story about that to be fulfilling. (Thanks for the great insight, by the way!).
CBY: I’m a huge fan of all manner of time travel stories, from Back to the Future to Primer, from Time Cop to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and everything in between. Were there any particular time travel stories that inspired and influenced you when you were working on RetroActive?
IM: Yes! I love the genre as well, and I particularly love the sub-genre of time loops. Groundhog Day is a favorite, as well as Edge of Tomorrow. I also really loved the movie Frequency, which was a lesser-thought of time travel story, I think.
CBY: Oh yeah, Frequency is great. Tarik Abdelnasser is the main character of RetroActive and, as readers, we get to see more of his life than just his work for the Bureau of Temporal Affairs, in particular, his time with his mother. Those scenes felt poignant. Why was it important for the story/character that we see more of Tarik’s life than just his time at work?
IM: Thank you. I think because time travel and spy action are so “out there” for us in terms of our everyday lives, we need a way to relate to Tarik that is relatable for so many of us. Having a family connection to ground him, and having another reason to sympathize with, and root for him really allows us the opportunity to connect with him.
CBY: I liked the use of “drifting” for the agents to describe time travel. Did you go through other possible names and what made you settle on “drifting”?
IM: I thought about “jumping” for a brief minute, but my idea for how the time travel works here is that time is a winding stream that folds over on itself, and so to step across these parallel lines would be more of a “drift.” Also it hadn’t been done before (as far as I’ve seen). I wanted this to feel like a more fresh take on a well-worn topic.
CBY: What comics/books/tv shows/movies are you currently enjoying?
IM: I finally caught up on Something Is Killing The Children recently. What a fantastic book that is. I’m also really enjoying Winning Time, the new HBO show about the rise of the LA Lakers (and I’m not even a basketball fan, haha). I’m listening to Andy Weir’s Hail Mary as I work, and it’s been really enjoyable so far. CBY: If you were the curator for a comics museum, which 3 books do you want to make absolutely sure are included?
IM: Oh wow! That’s a question right there! I think SCALPED, because it’s one of the greatest comics series of all time (IMHO), Batman: Year One, CRIMINAL.
CBY: Any other projects CBY readers should check out?
IM: My Nazi-hunting spy story JAEGER is seeing official print for the first time through Fair Square Comics, a new imprint that seeks to highlight marginalized creators in comics, and I’d love for people to check it out! It’ll be in comic shops in May.
CBY: That's great! Where can you be found online?
IM: www.ibrahimmoustafa.com has links to my Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube channels at the bottom. I’d really love it if folks checked out my YouTube channel; I’m doing both art videos, as custom builds of action figures and vehicles for them. I’m currently working on a scale model of the Bale Batman Tumbler/Batmobile that’s been super fun.
CBY: Thank you so much, Ibrahim, for chatting with me about RetroActive.
IM: Thank you so much for having me—I think you folks at Comic Book Yeti do really great work and I’m honored to have the chat!