“What would the emoji-pocalypse look like?” Jonathan Coulton & Matt Fraction on their Dystopian Album/Comic Hybrid, Solid State

Comics Features Jonathan Coulton & Matt Fraction
“What would the emoji-pocalypse look like?” Jonathan Coulton & Matt Fraction on their Dystopian Album/Comic Hybrid, Solid State

Jonathan Coulton and Matt Fraction are both something of Renaissance men. The former is a software programmer turned viral folk singer and geek culture magnate who operates a specialty cruise line; the latter is a critically acclaimed comic writer known for his work on such independent series as Casanova, ODY-C and Sex Criminals. Earlier this month, Coulton announced that the release of his latest album, Solid State, would come with a companion graphic novel penned by Fraction and illustrated by Spanish artist Albert Monteys. Paste had the opportunity to speak with Coulton and Fraction about the origins of the project, the synergistic relationship between comics and music and the hyper-real horror that is Celebration, Florida. Solid State, both the album and graphic novel, release on April 28 and can be purchased here.

Paste: Matt, how were you initially approached to work on the graphic novel for Solid State? Did you and Jonathan know each other before?

Matt Fraction: We knew each other and I had done the JoCo Cruise the previous year and we spent a little time together.

Jonathan Coulton: We knew each other’s work and, dare I say, we were fans of each other’s work. We hung out quite a bit on the cruise.

Fraction: As one does on a cruise, you eat and hang out with Jonathan Coulton! So, a few weeks afterwards he reached out and sort of explained this crazy notion of a concept album that maybe had a lot of conceptual space sort of not quite filled in, and this idea he had of tying the record together with a separate thing that could also stand on its own. It was completely unlike anything I had ever been a part of. And being a fan of Jonathan’s music, I really just wanted to hear the new record, so I said “yes.”

There’s something algebraic about it, something very puzzle solve-y about it that appealed to me as a writer. There were problems to solve, there were questions to answer, and there were questions to ask that kind of got to trying to figure this thing out. It was also a nice chance to dive into someone else’s work, but figure out what I wanted to say in that same space. In a lot of ways it was like any other work-for-hire situation, like writing a superhero comic, but at the same time there was room to add a lot more of myself to it—to build with Jonathan, which is extremely exciting. There was something novel to the entire process.

Solid State Cover Art by Albert Monteys

Paste: Jonathan, you wrote in the notes of the book that the instigating idea behind recording Solid State was the feeling that “the internet sucks now.” Unpack that: what sucks about the internet nowadays?

Coulton: Well I think that a lot of that is my own personal journey with the internet. My career wouldn’t exist without the blossoming of independent publishing that happened at the beginning of this century. So I really felt, as all of that was happening, I really felt Oh my god it’s happening, here comes the future! Here comes this beautiful, glorious future where the internet binds us all together and frees us from “The Man,” so now art can just happen…

Fraction: What could ever go wrong?

Coulton: Yeah, what could ever go wrong?! [laughter] I was an internet utopianist. I really felt like we were at the dawning of this new age, and even social media back then felt like a fun and friendly place, which is so hard to imagine now. And of course in the intervening years, the record industry fell apart, all the middle men went away for a couple years and now they’ve sort of been replaced by other middle men. Now you sort of owe your soul to Spotify and it’s not clear if Spotify is really paying you what you’re worth. Not just singling out them, but just streaming music as a consumer I love, and as a human I’m really glad we have it, but as an artist I have to ask, “Hmm, what’s happening here?” And you know of course, the general “humans on the internet” experience has changed, specifically in social media. Now that everybody is on the internet, now that everybody has a voice, it’s wonderful, but also at the same time kind of terrible because it has really amplified who we are for good and for ill. So part of what I was trying to explore in writing these songs and teasing out this larger story was, “What’s happening?” What do we do with this incredible technology, that we so clearly want and which is going to stick with us for a long time and is our future; how do we figure out how to use it, and how are we going to figure out how to be better humans, or are we still going to be just these awful, louder humans? It think that’s basically what I was getting at.

Solid State Interior Art by Albert Monteys

Paste: In the annotated notes of the story, Matt, you wrote, “It has been fascinating and weird to watch the world happen as we’ve been working on this project.” How long did the graphic novel take to complete, and what was going on in your lives during the time of writing it?

Fraction: It was about this time last year—isn’t that crazy? We’re both parents and creative types, so I suspect that any attempt to look back at our year is going to be filtered through instances of life and/or vomiting, parent-teacher conferences or vacations, and of course deadlines we’re not meeting. It was weird to work through the election and the balkanization of social media and the use of doxxing and swatting as the internet equivalent of honking your horn and flipping someone the bird when they cut you off. That became weirder and weirder as we were kind of pretending, what would happen if everybody knew everything? and then suddenly there would be another, Hey look, Hilary Clinton orders hot dogs with no buns and that’s the lead story on CNN tonight. Like holy shit, just every dumb thing anybody has ever written, to watch Twitter become what Twitter has become, to watch what our discourse has become in light of private communication becoming “not-so private” communication. Combine that with everything; our election, Brexit, conventional wisdom going entirely out the window, the Cubs winning the World Series, up was down, black was white, etc. We felt like we were in a moment, This is the start of a thing, this is a time children are going to ask us about someday. Writing and living in a space where information is indeed freed, but is that freedom really “free”?

Paste: Jonathan, while recording the album, you already had some time to come to understand who the protagonist of Solid State was. Did Matt and Albert’s interpretation match with your own image, or did it exceed it? Who is “Bob” to you, in your own words?

Coulton: The interesting thing with that, for me, was that most of the story of the album took place in what I’m calling present day, plus maybe in 15 years, which is Bob now. The bookends of the album visit with “Bob-One,” the far-future Bob. For me, most of the arc of the album was this guy who lives a little bit ahead of us, who starts out as a shitty internet troll person, an angry script kiddie who eventually becomes some kind of tech luminary. He’s still not satisfied, things fall apart for him, and as we trace over the course of his life he comes to understand that the way to feel better as a person is to focus on the people around you, to have empathy for the people around you, and to love other humans. So for me, that was the main arc, and sitting around it was this far-future Bob who was sort of living through this song “All This Time.”

Once Matt had turned the story around for a while, he said, “You know, I think most of the book is going to be about that song ‘All This Time,’” and sort of telescoping out of that far-future Bob who I hadn’t really thought of too deeply as a character. It was kind of amazing to watch that happen first, that character to get created first and then for Matt to trace back to the character that I had imagined as the main character, because the album emphasizes the present-day story a lot more. Matt and Albert did a fantastic job and exceeded my expectations, because I had a sketchy outline as you’ll see in the notes at the back of the book and that’s all I had. To see them come up with all these details and flesh these things out in a way that really maintained the emotional content of what I was thinking of and trying to say, and dare I say even enhanced it. Several times when Matt or Albert would send me pages, I would read them and cry. It’s weird when you write a thing, you’re writing these characters and you realize that you really are writing about yourself in some way. It was spooky to watch them hit all these emotional moments that really affected me and really spoke to exactly the kind of emotional journey I was thinking of when I was writing the album.

Solid State Interior Art by Albert Monteys

Paste: In the comic, Future Bob lives in the “Boojitropoplex,” a high-tech walled off campus governed by an emotional curation system of “upvotes” and “downvotes.” What inspired the idea of a dystopia governed by the principles of social media?

Fraction: Well, just thinking about what if we got everything we wanted and it turned out to be a punishment? I have apocalypse fatigue. I think we all do. I could go the rest of my life without watching another building fall into another building. And I realized in the process of wool gathering for this that I have post-apocalypse fatigue, too. There’s been so much great work in that space, like you’re never going to outdo The Handmaid’s Tale, you’re never going to outdo Children of Men. So what would a soft apocalypse look like? What would the emoji-pocalypse look like? Like those parents who cover every corner of their house with foam so their child can’t get scratched, what if we did that to ourselves, what if we just retreated into the Boojitropoplex?

Paste: What inspired the lingo used in that futuristic society? For instance, every human being referred to as “buddy,” the comical usage of the word “Booji,” etc.

Fraction: [laughter] I wanted everybody to call each other ‘bro,’ but I felt I already covered that pretty well in another book. ‘Buddy’ is such a soft, gender-less, neutral term. You can be sarcastic, you can be genuine, it’s a perfect ‘nothing’ word.

Coulton: And then, you of course connect it to social media and the language of buddy lists.

Fraction: Yeah, it really came down to a question of what we were going to name our community of future people. We just took corporate nonsense into a place of social engineering, literal engineering. We were playing with ideas of what if the volume of your voice could be increased or muted based on the number of up- or downvotes you accumulate. So if people around you disagreed with what you were saying, you physically could not be heard. Just probing how far we could extrude the “Yelping” of culture.

Coulton: The whole thing is so unsettling, to take the conventions of social networking and extrapolating them out into the real world is terrifying. And then you have to ask, why are we doing it in social media then?

Solid State Interior Art by Albert Monteys

Paste: Was “Booji” at all patterned after companies such as Google or Calico (Google’s biotech division devoted to life-extension)?

Fraction: No, what are those? [laughter] But no, it really was more the ones that didn’t make it, sort of Web 2.0 meets Disneyland. My wife did a talk at Facebook while we were making it and came back with reports about what the campus was like. You know what it really is? It’s Celebration, Florida. That was the inspiration, which I will let you search for yourself and discover what that is on your own. “Booji” is what if Celebration, Florida was where we lived and worked.

Paste: The comic touches pretty heavily on the push and pull between information privacy and intellectual property, with the advent of a post-privacy world sparking the dawn of machine intelligence. What are your thoughts on the singularity?

Coulton: I read The Singularity is Near and it was a really interesting experience because it’s a very compelling idea for a kid who loves the future and read OMNI magazine. It’s very exciting to think about this stuff and believe we’re just on the edge of this major technological transformation, right? I feel like people have felt that way for a long time. Except Ray Kurzweil and the rest of the Singularity proponents believe that they’re right, they were just wrong all those other times in the past and it’s all a matter of looking at the right charts, graphs and exponential number schemes. It’s just simple math, right?

It’s incredible hubris to think that you yourself were lucky enough to be on the verge of this thing and everyone behind you was not. On the other hand, looking at graphs, it’s hard to deny something big is about to happen. I don’t know, and I’m certainly suspicious. The thing that makes me suspicious of the singularity, and specifically Ray Kurzweil’s vision, is that it just happens to be the case that Ray Kurzweil himself was old enough to make it across the bridge into immortality. So, maybe he’s right, but that’s convenient, isn’t it? He didn’t write a book saying, Unfortunately, it will happen after I’m dead, he wrote a book saying, This is the thing that will make me immortal. I hope he’s right, but I really don’t know. I feel like we’ve always felt we were on the verge of something great and looking back, it’s not always been true. Jury’s out.

Fraction: I think it’s all dodecahedrons and fart tubes. [laughter] Anyone who calls themselves “Doctor” but can’t read an x-ray is trying to sell you something. Look, my grandmother would look at an iPhone that’s face-timing with her grandchildren with a look of wonder. You know, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But I’m interested in the human cost. I don’t think there’s a difference between intellectual property and privacy anymore. I think privacy is the ultimate intellectual property and if you don’t believe me, look at the things that have just been legislated. Now ISPs can just sell all your information to whoever wants to buy it. Like, case closed. That’s the last and most personal property, what goes on inside your head. Someone’s going to figure out a way to try and sell that.

Solid State Interior Art by Albert Monteys

Coulton: And I guess for me that’s the thing, the potential of all this technology and cultural change is great and I think there are a lot of dark turns this could take. As always, I think it’s important for us humans to figure out what we’re going to do, what we want and take an active role in creating the future we want to have so we don’t accidentally destroy ourselves because we want to stream Fleetwood Mac to all our mobile devices.

Fraction: Shame and embarrassment only work in an asymmetrical situation, right? Any kind of contract only works on this power differential, to have something that someone else wants. If you just carry that out to its logical conclusion, then it becomes about people again. What if anyone could find out everything you ever typed ever? Anyone anywhere could just pull it up on Google, there’s a personal Google that exists just to tell me about you. Alright, but then I have that about you and everyone has that about everyone. We’ve leveled the playing field, and what do we look like as people? How do we get back to work? But mostly, the answer is just dodecahedrons and fart tubes.

Paste: What motivated the decision to structure most of the comic’s expository scenes across a four-by-four panel scheme, with the characters’ expressions filling one-half of the panels and dialogue occupying the other half?

Fraction: 90% of this book wouldn’t exist without Albert Monteys, who is a genius in a way that the word just isn’t used anymore. I wanted to, just as a fan of his, to try to write something that lived up to his ability and his talent. I wanted to write something that I wanted to see him draw. I wanted to serve him as a writer rather than subsume him and treat him as an employee. Comics is a visual medium. I had an intern once who went through a random selection of my scripts because I wanted to find out, of the words that I actually write, how many make it into print? The answer was two-fifths. My artists and editors and collaborators read three-fifths that no-one else ever sees. I think it’s my job to reduce myself, to make myself get out of the way of the visual stuff.

Comics are rectangles. Traditional, American, western English comics are rectangles. Records are squares! This book was going to be shaped like a square because, well no actually, a record is round. [laughter] Wait, what? I quit. This was supposed to be about squares, Jon! So my thought process was okay, this is interesting, I haven’t worked in this format before. Alright, If you treat the entire page like a panel, what does that mean? What does it mean when you look at a rectangle, what does it mean when you look at a square? It’s a different compositional architecture, different flow, a different pace and tempo. Really, it was wanting not to embarrass myself in front of Albert and to try and take advantage of someone with his profound toolkit. There’s a dance in comics always between what’s written, what’s seen and what’s read. There’s the words and the pictures and what you make with the two of them. This had a fourth channel of data which was the record. So, where could I just not speak or not show and let the album do its job? Instead of telling or showing what a character is thinking or feeling, there’s a song about that. The space between two panels is filled in by the record, you make that emotional leap with them over the course of one or however many songs.

Solid State Interior Art by Albert Monteys

Paste: Solid State isn’t the first album to be turned into a graphic novel and likely won’t be the last. Why do you think that that comics and music have such a long and fruitful relationship with one another? How do you explain the synergy between those two mediums?

Fraction: Yeah, Jonathan.

Coulton: [laughter] I think that Matt was getting at it a little bit that there are words and the pictures and there’s this third level of them working together, and the way they tell a story not just explicitly, but by the way they suggest a thing—your brain builds that thing. The connections you make when you are taking it in. And I think that it’s very much a thing music does, too, in particular something like a pop song or love song that is not explicit about what it’s talking about, something that’s more in the space of describing an emotional moment or a state of mind or the nature of a relationship without going into too many details about it. And for me as a songwriter, I think about this a lot; it’s the classic “show me don’t tell me,” and I realize that some of my favorite songs are the ones that don’t really tell me whats going on entirely. I get to have a relationship with that song where I hear it and like it, I appreciate what it’s about and it connects to me in a certain personal way, but the more I listen to it, the more I can imagine on top of that what it’s really about. I think that’s the kind of storytelling that happens in comics and can be very similar. It’s very filmic, where suddenly the dialogue will drop out and you’ll start “hearing” a story in pictures and somehow that’s an even more compelling and clear way of telling a story. That’s the smartest thing I can think to say about it, but that’s what it makes me think about: they are similar kinds of storytelling in that they can dip in and out of specificity and leave a lot of room for the consumer to fill in the gaps that works for them or really resonates with them.

Solid State Interior Art by Albert Monteys

Paste: How much of the album was completed before work on the graphic novel began? Did the course of the novel’s development affect the shape of the album itself? Or do the comic and the album exist as two separate, complementary works?

Fraction: We had close to all the final mixes.

Coulton: I don’t think there were any new songs written after the graphic novel had started.

Fraction: Oh, but there’s that one song that the graphic novel is about that you finished after the book. It’s so good!

Coulton: That song’s still not finished yet! [laughter] But there’s a song I ended up deleting off of the album where the artificial intelligence wakes up and decides that we’re not ready and it has to leave. For some reason it didn’t work for me in the flow of the album, that was originally going to be the last song on the album but I didn’t finish it.

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