We’re part of a generation inspired by the space opera. Star Wars came at a perfect time but movies with that sort of insane scope are hard to pull off, just look at Jupiter Ascending, it’s an ambitious space opera with a huge budget that by all measures failed. Luckily comics are hardly limited by things like budgets. If your artist can draw it, it can be on the page. Screenwriter, Eric Heisserer (The Thing, Nightmare on Elm Street) knows this, and he’s taking his ambitious idea “Shaper” to the page, giving us an idea we can’t find anywhere else.
The incredibly robust first issue hits stands today, and Bloody-Disgusting got the chance to exclusively talk to Eric Heisserer about the influence of the space opera, the concept of the prodigal son hero, and building giant worlds.
Bloody-Disgusting: From what I could gather, a shaper is a shapeshifter but they were believed to be legend, in a world filled with science fiction tropes and legend why are shapeshifters considered so far fetched?
Eric Heisserer: Honestly, nothing is far-fetched in a space opera world, because your buy-in is huge. But I was driven to this idea by two desires: First, I was curious, in science fiction, what kind of folklore would exist? Does the presence of advanced space travel and alien life automatically negate the concept of mythology, or could you still have some legends and tall tales in a galactic empire? That didn’t really serve me with a solid answer until my other desire, which was to explore something I’ve been noticing in social media lately. For the past year, I’ve been seeing how people can become friends online due to a shared set of hobbies or a mutual love of some facet of pop culture. And then some new element peels back and one friend learns the other is a Muslim, or gay, or an entirely different race than what they imagined, and a culture shock happens for them. Like, they just assumed because they both loved the same TV show or grew up in the same hometown, their friend would be the same in all other major ways. And more often than I wish were true, this revelation fractures the friendship. Like it’s a betrayal, even when it’s not.
When I started looking for a way to express this in a space opera world, I likened it to a race of shapeshifters, who could look just like a native, but in reality they aren’t from there.
BD: I know you mention it in the back matter of the issue, but tell me a little more about why the story for “Shaper” was better suited as a comic book?
EH: Yeah, I think this is a comic book because it tells a story that shouldn’t be influenced by budget. “Shaper” sprawls the galaxy, and if we do it right, is full of craziness, starting with the core Shaper characters who can transform into multiple life forms. Oddly, something that would otherwise be deemed too expensive for a live-action film has a perfect home as a comic book, where the limits are imagination and page count.
BD: Near the end of the first issue you describe Spry as a library of forms, which comes with a ton of visual potential, what is so special about Spry and what does his future hold?
EH: The way Therians (Shapers) gain the ability to take on various forms — called “slipping” — is two ways: First, you have the ones you inherit from your parents. What they learned, you can retain, with training. Secondly, you can still learn new forms on your own, as it’s like learning a language, but it can take years to perfect that slip. So what makes Spry interesting is that he has this repository in him, but he hasn’t been through any training yet, therefore all of the forms we see him use are just instinctual; they emerge as a reflex to some situation. And it’s a bit like the subtitle for BIRDMAN — there’s a virtue in Spry’s ignorance, allowing him to act purely intuitively. Or sometimes, stupidly.
BD: Spry obviously follows many of the typical space opera protagonist tropes with his untapped potential, mysterious backstory, and his call to adventure but what makes him different?
This poor kid just wants his family back. He’s lived his life thinking he was abandoned, when really he was just being hidden away for the time being. And his sense of time is way off at the moment, you know? A shapeshifter is a pretty amazing creature, if you start to lean into just a little science of it. Transformational power like this, there’s a good chance they don’t age, or if they do, it’s really, really slowly. So let’s say an average Therian lives 5,000 years. Whoa, if that’s the case, why isn’t the galaxy choked with them? That’s a crazy population boom. Unless… Unless reproduction is just as slow or rare. If a Shaper can’t mate except once every thousand years, suddenly the concept of “family” becomes a HUGE deal. It’s one of the most treasured parts of Therian culture. So in that regard, I’d say Spry is different because he isn’t fighting to retain some long history of his race — he’s fighting for a future with his family. It’s a weird mix of past and future.
Also, Spry works as an analog for kids stepping out of high school feeling like they have one, or maybe two options for their future. They don’t feel like they’re standing in a field, full of potential, but instead they’re on a railroad car, packed in with other kids given the same ticket. But what Spry learns is, quite literally, he can be anything he wants — it doesn’t have to be college or the military. It can be some really weird, new direction that no one sees coming. That speaks to me, because I grew up in in Oklahoma, where it was just assumed you went to the local college after high school, or else you worked at the 7-11 down the street for the rest of your life. But I skipped town and figured out who I was first, and my first job out of high school was working in graphic design at a NASA subcontractor building gear for astronauts. And really, part of what gave me the courage to do something totally bonkers like that when I was 18, well, it came from the comics and novels I was reading at the time
BD: What went into creating a mythological hero like Tor Ajax? And what influenced his visual design?
EH: Oh man, Tor Ajax — there’s a whole mythology for him. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to explore him properly, because it would require an ongoing series, or at least a second limited run, but imagine the Tarzan story, except the jungle is replaced by a war factory on a planet, fully automated by an AI. There’s even a story about his armor, and how he got it.
BD: What was your development process like to create the massive world of “Shaper?”
EH: I spent two years just building out worlds and populating them — I approached it like I was making a roleplaying game first. And of course a lot of it was inspired by the science fiction I love — to this day, no one rivals Iain Banks when it comes to naming ships, but the Gossamer Knife is a little nod at his genius. When I hooked onto Spry’s story, I began to get a narrower view, something more streamlined. I still wound up spending way too much on concept art for the characters, landscapes, and ship designs, but it was all in the name of fun. Like a game-master in some RPG campaign, I realized at the end that I had too much for one story, stuff no one would ever see, planets no one would ever visit, etc. But it felt good to do that world-building. It got me to the simple story of Spry.
BD: As it stands the comic is a limited series but the amount of depth in the first issue lends itself to an ongoing, can you see yourself telling more “Shaper” stories in the future?
EH: Easily. Of course. I could write a hundred issues.
BD: What’s the one thing you aim to do with “Shaper?” Why are you telling this story?
EH: God, I hope it’s self-evident, but really, it’s to have fun, and those of you wondering if you are stuck with only one or two life choices… nah.