This week, we’re rambling on (boy, are we ever!) with author Neal Bailey.
How to describe Neal Bailey? I’m tempted to run with “a riddle, a mystery, an enigma,” but then again he’s really not. Read his livejournal, read his blog … he’s pretty open about pretty much everything. You either love him or you don’t, but you take him as he is. He’s the author of multiple novels. He’s had short stories published in SMALLVILLE magazine. His current project is CURA TE IPSUM, a webcomic about alternate realities and self-discovery(ies), illustrated by Dexter Wei.
CURA TE IPSUM is the story of Charlie Everett. Well, several Charlies, as it turns out. In most universes, Charlie Everett gets sick of his life (where he’s most often a guidance counselor who tells other people how to live their lives, while not knowing how to live his own). After a certain point, he’s fired, and he goes home and sticks a pistol in his mouth and blows his brains out. Charlie Prime, our hero, is stopped by another character, Leo, who introduces him to the concept of the multiverse, and tells him that there’s a whole team of Charlies, Cura Te Ipsum, fighting to stop him from committing suicide across multiple universes.
Why? Well, that would be telling…. so let’s see if Neal Bailey has any hints for us, shall we?
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ANTHONY: Neal, thanks for stopping by to ramble on with us for a little while.
Neal: Any time! Thanks for having me around.
A: I’m going to get the hard question out of the way first: with as many variations on the “hero meets alternate versions of him/herself” concept as there are alternate universes, what makes CURA TE IPSUM stand out?
N: If I wanted to be arrogant, I’d say character over gimmick, but that’s really up to the reader. On a basic level, I’d have to say I haven’t really seen anything where a hero teams up with other versions of himself that doesn’t have a cape involved in some way. I am told that Nick Spencer’s INFINITE VACATION plays with the concept, but I haven’t read it yet (that’s not a condemnation, note, I just can’t afford many comics right now).
I’m also trying to use the multiverse itself as a conflict resolution mechanism. The closest I’ve seen to that is where the JLA can’t defeat the villainous versions of themselves because there has to be a balance, which is kind of a gimmick. I’m trying to take that further. Charlie’s with each character for a very specific reason as a form of self-examination. Charlene helps him get in touch with the more masculine side. Leo is the reflection, at least for the time being (can’t say any more without spoiling). Squirt is his innocence. The Nerd is his intellectual side. Hank is his best friend, but it’s also a way to avoid navel-gazing. If every version of himself is telling him one thing, Charlie can still turn to Hank and say “What’s the outside perspective?”
The other thing that I think is different is the whole angle of time travel. Time travel and the multiverse are rarely mixed together, because the intermix often leads to plotholes. Thankfully, I’ve outlined very strictly, and I’m trying to take a cue from Moffat and engage the plot device to its fullest extent, like he does with DOCTOR WHO, by having a plan ahead of time. I know the last page, I know the middle, I know the character arcs right now, and so I can play with time in a way that LOST kind of screwed up, I hope.
A: The pace of CTI really is “a mile a minute.” I don’t think the reader, or the characters, has had a chance to catch a breath since at least page 5. Is the unrelenting pace and constant change in the status quo intentional, in terms of keeping not on the characters but the reader asking questions about what’s really going on?
N: Yes and no. As a comic book, you’re always going to want things to be in motion, because a visual medium is more dynamic that way, and plus, I never want to be the guy saddling the artist with huge talk-y scenes. That said, there’s a lot of extrapolation in those first forty pages, I just took a lot of time whittling the dialogue down, so hopefully that makes it SEEM a mile a minute while dosing you with a ton of the basics of the universe.
It will slow down at times. There are a LOT of character vignettes that will weave in with the larger action, starting soon, but you have to open with a bang. Headquarters is introduced, then blown to hell, and then they’re adrift, and Charlie is learning what day to day life is with the team. Right now, they have no idea the Anchor Universe is not chugging along like normal. I think it’s fair to say that’s not going to stay true.
The destruction of the Anchor Universe is the last major boom for some time. It’s going to get much more interpersonal for a while… at least until page 160. I know that sounds crazy, but I’ve now written the story through page 270, so I can see a broader arc folks seeing the weekly comic might not. Year One is GO GO GO, for sure. Year Two is where the pieces are on the board and we can tell a few stories.
There will still be a ton of WTF and WHOA moments as I throw out all of the potentialities the portal, time travel, and a relentless enemy can bring, however, and I doubt the tension will ever ease up. If anything, the darker side of the fact that these are all broken, suicidal people will start to emerge more, on the way to hope.
A: Each of the Charlies in the main cast is a different personality type — can you talk a little bit about what went into creating each version of Charlie and what role they play in the group dynamic?
N: In my initial notes I wanted to have a mix of very different, very unique characters, and in the end I tried to stick to a reasonable cast that reflected what Charlie needed to solve his central dilemma, how to defeat his darker side and find a reason to live. Right now he’s very much “Kill the head and the body will die!” but he learns, over time, that the answer is “Enable the good parts of yourself, and the evil inside will either give up or go away.” That’s metaphorically speaking. I’m not spoiling the Dark Everett’s arc… that’s another thing entirely. Mwu ha ha ha!
Leo SEEMS very like Charlie, only more assertive. That will evolve. Leo’s also his conscience, in that he’s constantly pushing him to be the best he can be. He’s got that need that Superman sometimes has to constantly be there for everyone at the expense of self.
Charlene is the toughest character in the group, but she’s also a girl. This lets Charlie explore what it means to be a girl quite literally, in ways that guys try to fathom but can’t. You can theoretically think of what it would be like to be a woman, but if you can ask your female self, you can know for sure. Charlie will, and some of what he finds out is surprising. The Nerd is Charlie’s analytical sense.
Squirt is a bit of a blank slate, but he’s innocent. If you ask him what’s right and what’s wrong, he’ll know. On page 65, that saves Charlie from a murder or a suicide (depending on how you look at Leo potentially killing him). As things move on, Squirt takes on another dimension, but I can’t spoil that.
The Nerd reflects Charlie’s compulsive need to overthink, the thing that drives him to realize that much of life is futile if you look at it like a scientist. We’re born, we die, and in a hundred years we’re dust and forgotten. Well, yeah, duh, but if you focus too much on the facts and not the magic of life, you stop enjoying it. The Nerd shows him how to be analytical and smart without focusing on the bad facts, the ones that drive us down. There’s a number on my wall, “1,370.” It’s the number of CHILDREN who die of dehydration, essentially diarrhea, every day in the world. I wrote that on my wall at the height of my depression to say “Your problems, your insecurities, your petty worries, they mean NOTHING. Don’t be sad.” That’s the Nerd in me, and that’s what the Nerd does for Charlie.
Hank, who folks don’t know yet, is the best friend figure. When every part of yourself is telling you to just tough up, Hank is there to tell him, “No, that’s some pretty heavy stuff, man.” He’s essentially the opposite of the Nerd, which is why the Nerd and Hank are such good friends. They compliment each other. Leo and Charlene complement each other in that same way.
A: So far, other than the mass of nameless Charlies seen in the brief visit to Headquarters, the core group has stayed static. And it seems to be mirrored by Dark Everett’s gang: Dark Everett mirrors Charlie-Prime; Victorian Everett seems to mirror The Nerd; and at least a few panels show The Squirt with very similar body language to Junior Everett; the Everett who sets off the nuclear bombs seems a lot like Leo. So two questions: a) will we see a (as you say, statistically-less-probable) Female Everett and b) is this mirroring of Charlies and Everetts intentional or am I reading way too much into a few panels?
N: Actually, you’re not reading too much in there. Those hints and clues and ideas are to get you asking those questions. I can’t answer them, obviously, without spoiling the story, but I can say it’s very intentional. You are meant to wonder if these are, in fact, distortions, or future versions, or concurrent versions, or _______?
While Cura is an action story, a character story, at its core are several mirror mysteries. Who is the Dark Everett, really? What is Charlie’s future? Is time structured and set, per fatalism, or is it random and conscience driven like determinism?
You will find out the truth about the Victorian Everett in the first half of year two. You won’t learn about Junior or Weapons (the guy who set off the nukes) for some time.
It’s always good to have the evil characters and the good characters yin and yang each other. With Cura there’s that additional chance… maybe they mirror each other because there’s been some catalyst that has changed one person into another over time.
You will see more female Charlies. You will see how each of these characters became who they are, and why, and why they become what they become. I am very obsessed, almost fanatically, with trying to unfold a good mystery, because that can be the most memorable type of comic book story for me. Ruin in Rucka’s Adventures of Superman. Criminal, by Brubaker.
There is a hint on one of the pages, I won’t say which, that has the key to some of the biggest mysteries. There is stuff hidden in there that may not pay off for five years, maybe more.
A: You recently introduced one version of Hank, the Charlies’ childhood best friend. The Nerd comments on Hank’s incredible luck, and we see him escape a falling building (reminiscent of stories relating to the September 11th fall of the Towers), finding a motorcycle, and haring off for parts unknown. How much of Hank (or better, how many Hanks) can we expect to see in the near future, and what will his presence do to the dynamic of the core team?
N: The thing about Hank is that he’s already a part of the team. We haven’t experienced him as part of it, because we’re looking through Charlie Prime’s eyes, but he’s been there for the whole time the team’s been together as a cell. He serves as a spirit of adventure, in many respects, and as someone who (before Charlie) urged them to find joy in their powers.
His past is explored in part in year two, and his whereabouts become pivotal in the second half of the first year.
A: The first CURA TE IPSUM trade came out not too long ago, along with a really cool looking poster. A nice package comprising the first “book” of the series. What are the plans for future print installments, posters, etc.?
Right now we have a number of posters in the can, but we don’t want to oversaturate or make people buy too much stuff at once. We do, however, have some great plans. I want to make an extra-dimensional translocator rock for folks (and myself, honestly). I want to make a card deck and have the original art be a giveaway for future trades.
Currently, we’re gonna put out a trade every six months or so (maybe a few weeks off, depending on the story… I will add a few pages if the story demands it). I’m thinking I’ll do a paperback volume 2 at page 156, and then start a regular schedule with the comic (tentatively) that involves a trade every six months, and then, so we don’t overwhelm people (because I know how tight cash is), I’ll do a hardcover or a collection of two trades three months after the second trade comes out, Ultimate Spidey style.
I really liked that, when I was reading Ultimate Spidey, the choice between a cheaper trade, if I couldn’t afford the hardback, or a hardback, if I could.
That is, of course, if a hardback is not cost prohibitive. I’m still learning as I go.
I intend to offer customized sketches as opposed to random ones with the next trade, and Dex has already agreed, so that should go well.
A: Customized sketch cards will be a great draw, I think. I already love the sketch card that came with my CURA trade. You mentioned LOST and DOCTOR WHO earlier. Do you know, like those show producers claim to, exactly how it all fits together and where it will all end? How much room for “oh, that would be cool” is there in your writing process?
N: There’s plenty of room for “Oh, check this out!” in the process, because though the arcs have beginnings and ends for each characters, the adventures they have are still wide open and chosen from a batch of “things that will for sure happen.” I weave them together in a very arc focal way, but I’m really big on the school of if something happens randomly, let it, and then make sure it fits, and if it does, keep it, if not, get rid of it.
I just wrote a scene in the 250s that involves a “wouldn’t it be cool?” There’s also the fact that I will be introducing other characters that DON’T have fully written arcs of yet, eventually, characters I’m still creating.
I will NOT pad story, and I won’t throw things against the wall to see how they stick. SMALLVILLE and LOST have shown the flaws in that when they were at their worst. But, as a hypothetical example, if Charlie turns to Nerd and says “Hey, why haven’t we killed Hitler?” Well, that might lead to all kinds of fun.
And may already have… keep reading.
A: Such a tease! Okay, switching topics: tell us a little bit about your artist collaborator, Dexter Wee. How did you guys come together for this project?
N: I met Dex through Skipper Martin, creator of Bizarre New World, a comic about the ramifications of human flight and a character story of the highest order. Go buy it! Seriously.
I was looking for good, hard working pencillers who were willing to take what I could pay, and who wanted a long term project. Dex jumped right in, and seriously, about a month from when we started, we were cranking it out like we’d always been doing it. He’s amazing.
A: You and I go back a ways, to when you were writing short stories for SMALLVILLE magazine. And if I’m not mistaken, you appeared in at least one issue of a DC Comic as a member of the Blackhawk Squadron. Your love of the superhero genre is obvious, but CURA isn’t a super-hero story per se. Are you working on any superhero concepts at the moment?
N: Yeah! My buddys/mentors/idols Greg Rucka and Eric Trautmann popped me into Checkmate 25 as a shout-out, making me a Blackhawk Ensign. It’s my goal, if I ever get to DC, to note that I was killed by the Snake Babies from that arc, heh. I kid.
I am always working on superhero concepts, non-superhero, heck, even non-fiction comics in the Pekar style. Honest truth, which may sound bad, but hell, I have forty comic scripts that haven’t been drawn for lack of a consistent artist. Hear that, anyone within the sound of my voice? If you draw, and draw well, and are consistent, let’s do a webcomic! Part of the problem is that it’s hard to find a consistent, good artist who isn’t already scooped up and making cash, someone who wants to put out something to show people. The rest of the problem is that I can write five pages in a day, maybe ten, and an artist can do one or two, so there’s a huge work gap there. They do the heavy lifting.
I think with the webcomic model making money at last, however, that’ll change. More people will do it out of love and get the money on the back end without getting bilked. People are realizing that they can get better stuff without a whole heck of a lot of corporate oversight sometimes. There’s some meritocracy to it, as opposed to cronyism and/or the cult of personality, which I dig.
I am pitching to major companies in ways I can’t really publicly talk about. Part of that process is being rejected. CURA initially was rejected by a company. I decided I wanted to do it anyway. I did. I have many ideas that are waiting in similar fashion for their moment and/or a collaborator.
If the pitch process has taught me anything aside from frustration, it’s that work on good ideas is not wasted. You put in the work, and eventually the best ideas spring forth.
A: I know you’ve been plugging away at novels when you’re not writing CURA. Anything you want to share with us about those?
N: There’s nothing coming out soon as of this writing, but I have written five books in three years, and boy are my arms tired… GOLFSWING! My agent is working hard to get them published. It’s a tight market. We’ll see.
One is a series character, Hal Taylor, a redneck detective based out of Salt Lake City whose MO is simply “I kick asses for a living.”
I wrote a book about rich guys who take women captive as sex slaves, at least until they pick up a gal with military training who escapes and gets a gun. It doesn’t end well for them.
I’ve written ten novels, and I’m working the eleventh right now. Eight are publishable by my hyper-critical estimation. Patience and time sustains me. I have faith that though reading is in decline, and though the marketplace is full of folks, I’ll find my little niche. If not, it’s not so much about that as the satisfaction of a job well done to the best of your ability, for me.
A: Well, hopefully we’ll see the Neal Bailey name on a hardcover (or a Hard Case Crime mass market paperback … are you listening, Charles Ardai?) soon. Now for my usual last question: What is your favorite book, and what would you say to recommend it to someone who hasn’t read it yet?
N: Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, hands-down. I don’t say much to people who haven’t read it. I actually mail them copies. Ask my poor, badgered friends. But if I had to summarize it, I’d say that it’s the perfect example of a madcap exploration of the contradictory nature of human opinion, and how we still act upon things that lead to death, sorrow, and destruction without thinking in a modern age.
It’s also just a damned funny, well written book. The craftsmanship that went into the prose is so strikingly evident in every paragraph, it’ll please heavy editors like me. The concepts are high and there are tons of subtexts and contexts, so it appeals to literati types. There’s sex, scat, and base humor, so it appeals to people with a common sense of humor. It’s pretty much a perfect book, in my opinion.
That said, give it thirty pages to get the vibe. I put it down once because I just didn’t get it. That happens with most of the very best books.
Thanks for joining us, Neal! I know we could have let this conversation run twice as long and still left plenty to discuss. We’ll have to do this again, perhaps when CURA closes in on 200 pages.
You can contact Neal Bailey on Twitter as @nealbailey, via Facebook (email@example.com), or on his personal website. And of course, visit CURA TE IPSUM every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to follow Charlie, Leo, Charlene, Nerd, Squirt, Hank, and the Dark Everett. It’s worth getting in on the ground floor for!
personal site: www.nealbailey.com
Facebook is under firstname.lastname@example.org