With the Thoughts that You'll be Thinkin' You Can Enter the ThoughtScape with MATT MAIR LOWERY
What an exciting day here in the Yeti Cave! Despite my standard prohibition of interviewing Matts, I invited Matt Mair Lowery into the Yeti Cave, and what a wonderful conversation we had all about ThoughtScape, writing, collaborating, and loads of other cool stuff that he likes, which, turns out, I like too. Get comfy, because this is a long one but a good one.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Matt, thank you so much for joining me here in the Yeti Cave to discuss ThoughtScape. I was delighted and disturbed in equal measure to read issues #1 and #2. First though, how have you been doing?
MATT MAIR LOWERY: Thanks so much for having me. You all have been huge supporters of me and of ThoughtScape and I really, really appreciate it. And "delighted and disturbed"...I really like that. I would say that is a very nice summation of what I am going for with the comic.
I'm doing all right. It's been a strange few years for sure and I think I feel some sort of existential exhaustion and a good amount of anxiety about A LOT of things these days, but of course, that's what most of us are feeling. It's weird to try to both maintain some kind of grounded perspective about your life and the day-to-day things while also feeling like the world is on fire and some of the systems that are the underpinnings of society are just completely collapsing, sometimes very justifiably/rightfully so, sometimes not.
Anyway, there is definitely plenty of angst for me to attempt to channel into making ThoughtScape stories. Writing this comic definitely doubles as therapy for me and helps keep me sane.
CBY: You studied journalism and creative writing at the University of Oregon and if you have a “day job” other than creating comics, what is it you do?
MML: I do UX and web design for my day job. I work for myself, contracting with companies that are building apps and websites, so I have a lot of flexibility, am able to control my own schedule for the most part (which works well with wanting to spend a decent chunk of my day writing or laying out issues, etc.). In school, the last couple years especially, my focus within the J-school was magazine layout and design. This was the mid-'90s, so, when I got out it was just starting to become clear that, before long, the web was going to overtake print journalism. I ended up in a temp tech industry job where I learned to do HTML and CSS and such and eventually discovered that my real strength design-wise was information design, figuring out how apps and sites should flow, that kind of thing. And now I've been doing that for over 20 years, which is wild.
So anyway, and maybe more to the core of your question, my day is basically: get up early, write comics or work on ThoughtScape in some other way – be it planning stories or sending notes to artists – for a couple hours, do some day job work, grab a run or a walk, come back and work some more, and maybe throw some more ThoughtScape effort in before the end of the day so I can end the day on a creative note.
CBY: What’s your comic creator origin story? How did comics come into your life, did you read them as a kid, and what made you want to make your own comics?
MML: Comics were around a bit when I was a kid. I had, and still have around, random issues of things, and this was the '80s, so there was also the Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends cartoon, the Hulk TV show, the live-action Spidey show, Superman The Movie, and so on. But, it was really when I was 10 and my friends and I were playing with G.I. Joe figures and then got into the Larry Hama Joe comics, that comics really became a part of my life. We all dove deep into G.I. Joe, then X-Men at the height of Claremont times, and it spiraled from there. It was a pretty amazing time to be new to it all. 1984-1987 especially, so much stuff that I still love was on the shelves, and so much that I wasn't ready for back then but picked up later, like Elektra: Assassin and such.
After that, it's a pretty typical comics story... read comics for a while, dropped off when high school rolled around and I started playing in bands and stuff, found them again later on. In my case, returning to comics came when a friend of mine turned me on to Bendis' Ultimate Spider-Man right around when my first kid was born. He lent me those hardcovers and I would read them while my daughter snoozed on me. Coming back to them at that point, seeing what Bendis was doing to develop the story, the decompression of those first six issues or whatever it was before Peter put on the suit...obviously, storytelling styles come in and out of favor, and they all have their pros and cons, but the way that felt back then, that build-up, it was so compelling and unlike anything I had seen in comics. Just such an incredible payoff.
Anyway, as I got older and was wanting to get back to fiction writing and reading more and more Bendis, Brubaker, Fraction, etc., I started getting creator-y ideas. I started using my free time to study up on writing in general, started writing TV scripts, and then realized that unlike TV I could actually make comics. And, at this point I was deep back into them, falling in love with them again, going to Bridge City Comics every week and picking up my box, etc. so once I had the lightbulb moment of "oh, I could actually try and do this" it felt pretty natural, and I'd been listening to stuff like Word Balloon and iFanboy for years at that point, so it all just kind of clicked.
The first idea for a comic I had was for Lifeformed, which was eventually published by Dark Horse and is now at Scout, and that came directly from wanting to have a comic that I could share with my kids. The kid comics market was a bit different then (2012 or so), and there was a lot less there, and nothing that, to me, sort of served that same purpose that X-Men did when I was a kid: a genre tale that kids could read but that was just a bit past them so it felt intriguing to them, not talking down to them, and offered a peek into what was to come with growing up.
CBY: There is a written opening to both issues that I found effectively sets the stage for the immersive ThoughtScape experience, have you zeroed in on the bigger picture of ThoughtScape, whether these separate stories are all leading somewhere, and do you think you would ever include more prose short stories in future issues?
MML: Generally, I think of ThoughtScape as a very loosely connected world in which all these stories are happening, very similar to The Twilight Zone, and that it's the most fun to let the reader choose to draw the connections between them or not. In a lot of ways, it feels like what happens in a reader's mind is always going to be more compelling than when something is just absolutely defined. I mean, LOST, Boba Fett, anything with Wolverine... it always feels more interesting to me to not know and to be free to imagine the possibilities. But, that said, I definitely know the bigger picture. Or a bigger picture. If I am lucky enough to get to do this for a while, in terms of being able to afford it and so forth, I have things set up/outlined so that I could just write TSC for the next 10 years. Different angles on the world, different characters, some projects that are continuations of certain plots, some not, and so on. But there are also the economic realities of making comics when you don't really make any money from them yet, which leads to the answer to your prose question: I definitely have more ideas in the works for ThoughtScape prose-wise, as that would be a great way to be able to cover more story ground more affordably. BUT on the other hand, I struggle with that. I like to tell stories in comics, it's my favorite medium as both a creator and consumer, so I haven't locked in hard on prose yet. I keep trying though, and the bits in TSC so far have been a fun way to practice this. Also, I definitely want to mention that my friend, the wonderful writer and journalist George Pendle, wrote the front and back matter for issue #2, and it's a blast. It's really fun to see another writer play with the ThoughtScape concepts.
CBY: You were interviewed last year by CBY (and I encourage everyone to read it: here) and discussed several of your influences for ThoughtScape as well as your co-creators/collaborators, like Dave Law, Tyrell Cannon, Karl Slominski, and Lisa Naffziger, the first 3 being back for issue #2, but there is the addition of Jacob Edgar and Lesley Atlansky for “The Griever”, which I think is my favorite from issue #2. It’s surprising, emotional, and thought-provoking as all good stories are. Did you write that with the creative team in mind and how did Edgar and Atlansky become involved for issue #2?
MML: I’ve been pretty lucky a few times in having the writing of a story coincide with me coming across, and being fascinated by, a particular artist whose style speaks to that story, and that happened with Jacob as it had with Dave and Karl. I was in the middle of working on "The Griever," and looking at Jacob's work and thinking that his absolutely classic but also contemporary feel just fit the mood of the story so well... his art comes with some nostalgia baked in, which was perfect for the story, and he handles/acts the emotions so well... there is some real subtle stuff in terms of that he pulls off that’s just fantastic. Lesley I’d met at Rose City Comic Con the first time I tabled (2017), and I’d been wanting to work with her since. It turned out that she had colored a different Jacob project, so I could tell from those pages that it would be a cool fit. To me, Lesley’s work totally doubles down on the nostalgia and emotion while also placing us in some bright-but-tragic future... anyway, as you can tell, I’m very happy with how it came out. Definitely among my favorite things I’ve ever written and completed as a project, and it feels like it really delivers on the whole ThoughtScape notion or ethos or whatever. Also, it’s a good example of never throwing an idea away. The basis of the whole “person trudging through the snow to make a perfect cocktail” deal came from a killer sketch of Cassie (Anderson)’s from years back, a drawing of a woman in a big winter coat with a bag of groceries. I tried to turn that basic visual into a Lifeformed story, which didn’t quite work, but the image stuck in the back of my mind and eventually came out wholly formed as "The Griever."
CBY: The second standalone story in issue #2 is “Drones” with artist Tyrell Cannon, which may be more psychological body horror than science fiction and has strong what if David Cronenberg directed Starship Troopers vibes. What’s your process when you have the seeds of an idea for a story like this, did you always have a notebook nearby or the notes app on your phone, and what do you do to explore with your collaborators the look and layout of each story so that they are so visually distinctive?
MML: I use my Notes app on my phone for pretty much everything. To-do lists, daily planning, publishing plans and definitely story ideas. It means I can jot stuff down anytime: on a run, at a soccer game, waiting for a take out order... I love it. "Drones" is another long-ish gestating deal. I read an article about drone pilots, these folks sitting in a warehouse in the states bombing people halfway around the world, and I thought “wow, how would that fuck you up, to basically go to war on a screen for the workday and then drive home just like a normal, 9-5 commuter?” So that was on my list of sort of seed ideas, and then as you noted, some Naked Lunch snuck in there subconscious style, along with the notion of these shell-like aliens from another story I was writing (that's as yet unproduced), and there you go.
As far as collaborating, it’s a little different with each artist. "Drones" is actually the first thing Tyrell and I did, and it was written before I knew who would draw it, so I think I just told him to feel free to fuck with the layouts and not feel constrained by what I had defined in the script. When we worked together a second time, for "A Spy Without a Face" (which actually came out first, in TSC 1) knowing what Tyrell was capable of, I mainly saw my job as getting out of his way, which is ultimately what I think leads to each story being distinctive: letting a great artist just do their thing. It’s very situational, though. Sometimes there are things I definitely want to try: A 16-panel grid or some real structured deal or something, but in those cases I usually have the script done before I approach someone and if they aren’t down with my nonsense they can figure that out ahead of time and say "no thanks." So far, everyone I’ve worked with seems to dig a challenge and even want to push some structural notion or another further than what I even imagined.
CBY: You’re a dad of 2 daughters, as am I, and do you think raising kids has affected your writing or the drive to create and if so, in what way? Do you ever bounce ideas off your kids and are they interested in the things you write?
MML: 100% has affected my writing. I don’t think without the experience of parenting I would have gotten started on Lifeformed at all. The kids aren’t quite as interested in what I'm up to as they used to be when those books first dropped, they are in the full teenage years now and have a lot going on to worry too much about what their dad is doing, but I constantly harass them for feedback on scripts, especially if I am writing anything with younger characters. “Am I getting the voices right?” “What do you think about this or that?” Generally, kids’ story/media brains are pretty incredible these days, so I am happy to get as much feedback from them as possible, and my kids specifically still read a ton of comics, are more current on webcomics and Manga than I am, and so on, so that's also super valuable knowledge that I get to tap into.
CBY: Your Instagram has what I can only describe as Baby Yoda Book Reviews. What is Grogu reading these days?
MML: The Child and I are pretty into James Ellroy and Philip K Dick lately, that’s been a lot of our 2022 reading. I mean, very differently, of course but each of these guys is such a strong flavor and often so very good that it makes a lot of other crime and sci-fi, respectively, feel weakly executed or half-baked. No one writes like Ellroy, the absolute urgency, and any tv show in the sci-fi adjacent space has about 1/100 the inventiveness as a few pages of PKD. It’s wild. I read both of them and it makes me feel like there is so much further to push ThoughtScape, both voice and ideas... anyway, what else... This Is How You Lose the Time War was phenomenal, like a sci-fi poem... we're rewatching LOST, showing it to the kids, and I am building a list of the books that appear in the show that I want to check out. But my reading stack is already out of control. I keep taking vows not to buy more books, then coming across something online five minutes later and immediately breaking the vow.
CBY: As far as books seen in or referenced in LOST, I'd recommend The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien, if you haven't read that yet. Speaking of your Instagram, I saw you posted about Severance, which I loved and after reading ThoughtScape, I wasn’t surprised you were a fan. Given the opportunity, would you ever take the severance procedure and if so, how would you justify it if you had to explain it to your “innie”?
MML: Well, I kinda want to say I would never get severed, but you know, if I didn’t have to know what I did to make the money I need for making comics, maybe I would do it. Like, can my innie run crowdfunding campaigns? If so, then maybe that's actually not a bad idea. Imagine the messed up brain of that poor innie bastard, just firing off self-promotional tweets all day long. But seriously, though, Severance, what a show, and what a season finale. SO GOOD.
CBY: What can subscribers of your newsletter, Nervous System, expect to get in their inboxes?
MML: I love to recommend stuff to folks, so there is a lot of that, mixed in with updates about what is happening with ThoughtScape. And there is a lot of me ruminating on how to exist and make comics in the current and weird and ever-evolving creator-owned comics landscape, along with peeks at in-progress work from future ThoughtScape stories. If folks sign up at the paid levels, they'll get any and every ThoughtScape digital release that comes out or has come out. So, if you're new to this whole ThoughtScape thing, it's a good way to dive in, I think. And paid tier folks also get deeper dive behind-the-scenes material. I will say that the newsletter is still finding itself and its rhythm, etc. But I think it's a pretty fun time.
CBY: Are there any comic creators working today whose work inspires/influences you?
MML: For sure. I'm a big Tom King fan. I feel like he is constantly stretching himself and trying new things in a way that is super admirable when he really could just kick back and coast and not do that and be fine. Not everything he does is something that I love, but it feels like that's a sign that he's pushing himself and making art rather than just product. And to me he has delivered what, at least four modern comics masterpieces now: Sheriff of Babylon, Mister Miracle, Vision, Omega Men, which as much as I love the others is maybe my favorite of his, and he's also in the middle of Human Target, which feels like another instant classic. As a writer, I feel like it's pretty instructive watching how he works with artists, too. Those books are all special because he lets the incredible artists just cook. Just really do their thing.
Michel Fiffe is always an inspiration on multiple fronts, both his work - COPRA is one of my favorite books of all time - and his example as a creator. I'm constantly in awe of Jim Rugg's abilities and output. I love what Brubaker and Phillips are doing, how they've carved out this kind of new niche with the graphic novel releases. The Reckless books are a lot of fun. Oh, and James Tynion... SIKTC and Department of Truth go immediately to the top of the stack when they are released. Erica Slaughter is my favorite new character of probably the last 10 years, and Tynion's range between those two books, one super dense, one almost impressionistic, is wild and inspiring.
CBY: What comics/books/tv shows/movies are you currently enjoying?
MML: I mean, so much currently that it's sort of overwhelming. The new season of Russian Doll is great, and unlike anything else out there. It's really personal and unique. The first season was cool, but this feels like a whole other level. Pachinko is INCREDIBLE. Slow Horses is a blast and Gary Oldman is so much fun to watch. Better Call Saul is never less than amazing. It really feels like maybe I watch too much TV... comics wise, I have been having fun reading the run of Dark Horse 90s Terminator comics I didn't know existed until Fiffe posted something about them a few months back. A lot of going back to older stuff with comics for me lately, or maybe even since the pandemic started. I really enjoyed reading the Generation X collection. The 90s is interesting for me. I wasn't reading comics much at all during that actual time, just picking up the occasional Batman comic or whatever, so digging into it now retro style, knowing what to expect to some degree but also being surprised when some full run is pretty compelling, or finding some absolutely wild solo Wolverine story from that era is a blast. Nothing I love quite as much as a solo Logan tale.
CBY: If you were the curator for a comics museum, which 3 books do you want to make absolutely sure are included?
MML: Three... that is tough. Well, I think since I don't hear enough people talk about it, I will say Omega Men. It's one of the first books from a significant and era-defining creator for the big two companies, and it lays out most of the themes that TK goes on to cover in his subsequent work. Second, The Question, by Denny O'Neil and Denys Cowan. It's a groundbreaking run and it's incredibly important to me personally. Third, This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. It's impossible to explain how magic this book is, how perfectly it works, but everyone should read it.
CBY: Any other projects CBY readers should check out?
MML: I would highly recommend folks check out The Space Odditorium by TS 2319 artist Dave Law and writer Chris Calzia. It's a wonderful, absurd and completely compelling sci-fi book that more folks should be reading. It's wrapping up now, but it's a concise run, I think it will be three volumes total, and you can snap up the first two now at https://www.spaceodditorium.com/. I'm a huge fan of Brenna Thummler's Sheets and Delicates graphic novels. If there's anyone that enjoyed Lifeformed who hasn't read these books, go get them right now, they are incredible: charming, funny, sad, absolutely beautiful art. What else... everything Matt Emmons does is high quality, and he's cranking out the work and the Kickstarter projects these days (https://www.instagram.com/second.at.best/). I'm really excited for The Airless Year written by Adam Knave with art by Valentine Barker, who is amazing. And of course, all my collaborators on ThoughtScape have wonderful stuff going, Karl is on a huge roll with Lady Mayhem and Cult of Ikarus (both with writer Jenna Lyn Wright), Tyrell is always doing astounding work, Jacob Edgar is working with Bendis on something... so yeah, folks should follow all the TSC creators, and can find their Instagram handles in the issues of ThoughtScape in which they appear, so you know, another reason to go buy those issues right now, haha.
CBY: Where can you be found online?
MML: I'm @mattmlpdx on Twitter and Instagram. The Substack newsletter is at mattmlpdx.substack.com, and people can buy comics from me at mmlcomics.com or thoughtscapecomics.com.
Also, specific to the release of TSC #2, I wanted to make it as easy and affordable for folks to jump on board with the series as possible, so if you just read this interview here and want to grab the comics, here are some specific links:
ThoughtScape Comics #2 digital ($5): https://bit.ly/ThoughtScape2
ThoughtScape Comics #1 and #2 digital bundle ($9): https://bit.ly/TSC-1-and-2-PDF-Bundle
ThoughtScape Comics #1 and #2 digital plus the Behind-the-Scenes PDF ($11): https://bit.ly/TSC-1-2-plus-Process-Bundle
ThoughtScape Comics #1 print ($9 plus shipping): https://bit.ly/ThoughtScape1-Print
For a limited time, folks can use the discount code 4DHGD1S for an additional 10% off their order. Very useful if you also want to pick up some Lifeformed graphic novels, for example: https://www.mmlcomics.com/shop?category=Lifeformed.
CBY: Thank you so much for joining me, Matt!
MML: Thank you for all the support and for the great questions. This was a lot of fun. And all hail the Yeti. You all are doing amazing work and providing a real important service to comics by covering so much truly indie stuff.