Nic Klein and Ivan Brandon Forge a Striking Sci-Fi World in Drifter

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At some hazy point within the first arc of writer Ivan Brandon and artist Nic Klein’s Drifter, the grids fall away and the alien world of Ghost Town consumes you whole. Lost on the rust corpse of a mining settlement on a perilous sci-fi world, astronaut ronin Abram Pollux is marooned in space and time, attempting to unravel the mystery of his crash landing. With Pollux as proxy, the reader struggles through a hostile desert whose diffuse orange sunsets almost radiate heat through the page. The adventure also descends into the translucent aqua-marine pastels of sunken space craft, and staggers into the desaturated maze of forgotten mines where inexplicable monsters march. Rendered with painterly finesses by Klein, the world of Drifter pivots between intoxicating wonder and harrowing menace. And for concocting a world that feels like some unholy cross between Sergio Leone, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Mobius, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch—and maybe none of those at all—it’s damn impressive, and one of the most strikingly beautiful comics of 2015.

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This quality escapism shouldn’t be a huge surprise coming from the same creators of 2009’s Viking, which also blended moody colors and genres for a singular experience. Drifter draws on that same immersion with huge questions on what it means to be human and how environment defines identity. With the first collection out today and issue #6 due out next month, Paste chatted with Brandon and Klein about the mind-fuck mystery behind the title, using color for storytelling and how to respond when an artist draws a writer with an arrow through his neck in the comic they’re both collaborating on.

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Paste: In your afterword you allude that this comic took years to develop, with various other projects including a movie script and Nic’s run on Captain America popping up. If Drifter is all about trajectories, what was the actual trajectory of making Drifter?
Nic Klein: We’ve always been onboard with doing something together. Many years ago, Ivan asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to do something science fiction because I love science fiction. Over the years, we both had ideas of what we wanted to do in a science fiction environment. Once we told each other about our ideas, it turned out that they fit together pretty well. And from there, it was fitting it together, melding it together and going into the details and working away at it.

Ivan Brandon: We were almost starting off at an ambiance level of the world we wanted to create. I had some basic ideas in terms of the setting and character, and Nic had some ideas in terms of the payoff of the mystery stuff. It was really weird; we were both talking about two ideas and they ended up complementing each other, so we just merged them. Then we added things on top.

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Drifter Art by Nic Klein

It’s cool to work this way. In the old ‘by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’ kind-of days where, on a story level, things were a little bit more immersive. People certainly have criticisms about those things, but for us it’s cool to work with something where we legitimately know that we’re authors on almost every level. Nic is just as involved with the story, if not the actual script, and I’m involved at every stage of the design and in terms of the art of it. We’re all just wearing multiple hats and pulling up our sleeves on every possible level.

Paste: I’m reading through these panel descriptions and I’m thinking, what were the authors going through for this? The title says it all—it’s about drifting. What were you going through in your life that can inspire a story like this? How much were you soul searching and adrift, like protagonist Abram Pollux?
Brandon: [Laughs] Certainly to write any character, you have to connect with it on some level emotionally. I do travel a bit. Comics can be a bit adrift and a bit nebulous. Freelancing in general can be nebulous. You often have a lot of work or less work, just depending on the waves of things that hit. I don’t really have a conscious inspiration in terms of Pollux himself. I know that character; a lot of what drives him is about identity. And a lot of what the book is trying to explore is sort of removing identity from roles, and trying to figure out how people find themselves when they’re separated from patterns and systems and things that they’ve been plugged into. I wouldn’t call it a fear, but every once in a while I think of what would happen…people always make that joke, ‘how long would you survive in the zombie apocalypse?’

I think that modern 2015 U.S. society, certainly, is pretty disconnected from where we started out. If you watch Deadwood, Seth Bullock moves to Deadwood and literally builds his own house. And that’s how it was. You need to get your land. You staked it out be walking, and defining how far you could walk and that was your land, and you built a house and that was your house. We really don’t have any of those skills anymore. You’re specialized, but if you want anything done, or if you want to live somewhere or you need something in your house, you Google it, and you find a dude who can do that.

I’m fascinated by what happens when you disconnect humans from that system and that automation, and how their own definitions of identity change.

Paste: If one of the main themes of Drifter is discovering what it means to be human, I keep on going back to those first panels where Pollux’s natural reaction to another benign alien creature is stabbing it in the neck. We never quite come back to see the after effects.
Brandon: We’re definitely establishing the fear of the character, and we’re definitely establishing the violence of the character. There are after effects, in terms of the planet, in terms of the creatures, in terms of what those actions cause. A lot of the book is about consequences. There’s a little bit about it in issue #6. We’re going to go back into how the planet reacts. That was about Pollux responding to the planet; we’ll get into how the planet reacts to Pollux.

In that case, what we’re trying to establish is the character and how poorly he sometimes reacts to things. You have this creature who was probably trying to help him and his immediate reaction was fear and violence. You can see throughout the first arc that he’s got some anger issues, but he’s also got some guilt issues. There’s an immediate reaction for that specific act, and I think he immediately regrets it. But he’s got a lot of things that he’s done in the past, and as we go forward, that was just a small taste of things he might feel guilt for.

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Drifter Art by Nic Klein

Paste: Much of Drifter is an intentional mystery. With the series picking up again in July, how much of that mystery, such as Emmerich’s intentions or the Wheelers, is for the reader to suss out, and how much will be explored on a more practical level in your future work?
Brandon: We don’t want to do a Lost thing where people have a list of things that they feel weren’t answered. Here’s one thing I will say, and this is maybe going to sound a little weird—almost everything you need to understand the mystery is in that first issue. So when you get to the end of the series and you go back to the beginning, you’ll see that all the pieces are there.

We obviously presented them in a way that you weren’t supposed to answer them simply and be done with the series. We’re not trying to make anyone feel dumb. We put the puzzle out in a certain way that’s supposed to inspire questions. I think our goal, is that when we’re done, you’ll know exactly what happened and you’ll know why. You’ll know who and what everyone is. Hopefully.

On the other hand, I’ll say that life is a lot of questions and you don’t always get the answers. My stupid example is that when I was in high school, one day I was smoking cigarettes outside and a girl came up and slapped the cigarette out of my face and walked away. I never found out why she slapped me. Things like that happen in life. You get hit by a car—whatever it is—where you don’t necessarily get the answers. Our goal is that everything’s answered, but I’m not going to promise that every single situation…I don’t like things that are wrapped in a tiny bow, as much as I love Star Wars. Having this perfect scroll that explains the universe seems a bit of a cheat, because that’s not how life works. We’re all born into this context and we have to struggle to figure it out. So that’s important to me for characters, and it’s important to me for readers, because that’s your life. Your parents tell you some stuff. Some of what they say is not true—it’s based on their understanding. We’re all just struggling to understand life on any level. That struggle is a part of humanity. I don’t want to pretend that everything’s wrapped in a perfect bow, but you should be able to understand everything when we’re done.

Paste: Nic—how did you approach visualizing the themes of the book, reinforcing the loneliness and confusion of Drifter in your art?
Klein: Nothing consciously. Whenever I do art for a new book or a new series and figure out what staging or world-building is concerned, I just try to get a feel for it if it feels right. It’s a matter of scaling as well. Small figures in this huge, open area obviously feel small and lonely. Stuff that you see in a lot of old westerns. Or trying to keep the camera angle steady—not doing any overhead shots, keeping it on the figures. And for the world-building part, a lot of that stuff comes as we’re going along as well. Obviously the big things like the town were designed beforehand, but when there’s new stuff coming up, we design it as we’re going along, which is fun because it keeps things fresh.

Paste: The coloring definitely reinforces this moody contrast between night and day, the overground and underground dynamic.
Klein: I think the special thing about this, at least for me anyway, is that I’m doing most of the renderings through color. There’s hardly any spotted blacks, which apparently a lot of people say feels very European. I can’t disagree with that. A lot of European stuff is done in that way. The whole black and white way of work—having a penciller and an inker and a colorist—is a very American kind of thing, and a lot of European comic artists do all of these stages by themselves in about 80 percent of the cases. A lot of the rendering stuff gets done through color. There’s even a French term called couleur directe, which means adding the color right onto the art in a painterly way. I think I had that in the back of my mind. It just felt good to do a science fiction book on a different planet where a lot of the feelings, a lot of the atmosphere comes through color. And [I just] rendered it in color. Just do a clean outline.

For the color choices themselves, I always like to have a very distinct look between different scenes. If a scene takes place during night, I want you to flip through that whole scene and know you’re still in that timescape. And when daytime hits, you know it’s a different scene. I kind of color code all of my different scenes.

Brandon: It should be clear that a huge part of what Nic and I are going for, just in a meats and potatoes way, is the atmosphere and the mood. We’re really trying to establish a feel for the place. And establish what it feels like to be there. We spent an enormous amount of time in pacing things, and just figuring out what’s color, what’s warm. You can go back to Viking, and we both gravitate towards really pushing the mood.

Klein: Viking was a little more impressionistic. In Drifter it’s a lot more subtle—it doesn’t hit you in the face right away. It adds to the overall tone of the whole book.

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Drifter Art by Nic Klein

Paste: The heat feels suppressive, and when Pollux goes into night or goes underground, the shift is substantial.
Klein: That’s nice to hear. That’s exactly what we’re going for. Actually, the heat in that first issue, when he runs toward the hills…I don’t know what the word for that is, but when you’re in the desert and you see the heat moving when you look far off—the kind of heat wave. Ivan and I went back and forth on that a lot because I couldn’t figure out how to do it. I was getting really angry saying it still doesn’t look right! After a while it got to a point where it looked the way we wanted it to look. Little stuff like that is not a major thing in the book, but [I was] trying to get the details right.

Paste: You’ve mentioned sci-fi quite a few times. Why sci-fi, and why sci-fi for this story?
Brandon: The initial reason that we went with sci-fi was that we both really wanted to play together, and Nic wanted to do a sci-fi book because his inner nerd is definitely a sci-fi nerd. That is where we started out. Our last creator-owned book was Viking and we tried to take a genre that had some stereotypes to it and repurpose them, and humanize and disconnect it from its context. Once I started playing around with that idea with Nic, it really became compelling to me to try to do sci-fi, but hopefully do it in a very different way. And hopefully in a surprising way. It’s just something we really connected with. Nic’s a painter. It’s a skill set that not everybody has in American comics. I really wanted to work on a book that would give Nic that opportunity to shine and show everything in his toolbox, instead of just some of it. And to guitar solo, as I wrote it in the outro of the book [laughs]. I really wanted something where Nic could let it all out and sci-fi just seemed like a really good fit.

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Drifter Art by Nic Klein

Paste: Without giving anything away, Arkady might be my favorite symptom of the wandering lawlessness of Ghost Town. He’s literally the only official of a higher moral framework and turns out to be the most batshit crazy character in the book.
Brandon: [Laughs] A lot of that goes back to what I was saying. What happens when you disconnect? He’s part of a much larger construct in a larger system that he’s removed from. He’s literally millions of miles away from whatever he’s learned and anyone else who believes what he believes. What happens to the human mind when it’s afloat?

Paste: Are we going to find out the history of how Ghost Town was connected to human civilization?
Brandon: Yes…and no. We will explain what Ghost Town is and why it exists. The context of Ghost Town is different from the rest of the context of the human connection to that planet. If you look at issue #3, you’ll see this huge mining facility that exists there, but it’s sort of dormant—it’s not really in use. This planet is a mining planet that’s mostly been abandoned and these characters are just struggling through what’s left. A lot of this stuff you’ll find isn’t and can’t be used properly anymore. The planet itself has been all but used up, but Ghost Town itself exists in a slightly different context to the original purpose of the planet.

Paste: So that ending….is it even worth asking the question of what’s going on with that cliffhanger? Well, let me ask: is it a cliffhanger? Do we find out who dug that grave?
Brandon: Yes. That grave is very, very important. The graveyard is very meaningful, both to the story and to the mystery. There’s not a ton I can say there that wouldn’t spoil everything. It’s not a gratuitous, shocking image; why that grave is there is very important.

Paste: When I was online and saw your picture, Ivan, I thought you have a passing resemblance to Emmerich. Was that intentional?
Brandon: [Laughs] That’s the first time I’ve heard that. With beardy, pale-skinned guys, it’s gonna happen. In the last image of issue #3, there’s a man who’s dead, and someone thought that man was me. Nic has assured me it’s just a coincidence [laughs].

Klein: That’s a coincidence. I’m sticking to that. Freudian slip.

Brandon: A Freudian slip that took two days to make. But no—I don’t think Emmerich was made to intentionally resemble me. [Michael Avon] Oeming drew me one time into a book that we were doing together, but no I don’t think I’ve officially been drawn into this one.

Paste: What can you tell us about the next phase of Drifter? And ultimately, what do you ideally want to communicate within its pages?
Brandon: There’s going to be a journey. Because Ghost Town is not 100 percent self sufficient, and people are waffling for ways to make it more so. The events of the last couple issues of the first arc will force them to move and figure out how to fortify Ghost World. That requires us to move to a completely different part of the world. And when I say completely different, I really mean completely different. The weather’s different, the landscape’s different; it’s a very different environment. We’re going to find some more mysteries. We’re going to find some more answers. A little bit more of an understanding of what everything is, and why everything is.

Abram has a goal. He’s going to have a goal that will become clearer as the second arc comes through, beyond his anger and his fear and his revenge. He’s got other goals. That will definitely become more clear in this next arc. I’ve never been a fan of movies, television shows or books that are very mystery-driven. i enjoyed Lost, but it always annoyed me that it became more about the mystery than the day-to-day events. It just became people on the internet comparing notes and doing math. I never want to do a comic book that’s about math.

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Drifter Art by Nic Klein

Though there’s a larger question to be answered. I think day to day, the circumstances that they encounter should be entertaining and engaging. I always want things to be more about the moment, and more about the characters and them adapting to specific situations. Regardless of whether you get your stories answered exactly when you’d hope to, you should still be able to follow along with these characters and to enjoy what you’re experiencing.

Klein: Aside from it being a fun read, it needs to be a visually compelling book as well. I think it’s important, especially since I’m doing the art part, but especially if you’re creating a new world. You can’t separate the visuals of a comic book, obviously, and the same goes for film. When I think of science fiction movies that stuck with me and influenced me, oftentimes it’s just visual moments that get caught in my brain. It’s not so much the story. It’s not so much the characters. It’s a de ja vu moment, like ‘get your hands up.’

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