There’s simply no point in bemoaning the omnipresence of superheroes in modern pop culture, but the creative team behind Comixology’s new Astonishing Times series are well aware of how saturated with capes and Spandex our media landscape often feels.
Astonishing Times is the story of Noah — an intrepid reporter stumbling his way into a superhero-involved adventure — and will certainly ring familiar with fans of the cape genre. But what feels most “real” about the series is how civilians seem unable to get particularly excited about the wild things happening around them every day. The cape movies, books, and shows of Astonishing Times’ world are anything but fiction, which is perhaps why most people, aside from Noah, are a bit more than burned out when it comes to consuming content about them.
When Gizmodo recently spoke with co-writers Frank J. Barbiere and Arris Quinones, along with artist Ruriari Coleman over email, the trio opened up about their desire for Astonishing Times to be a celebration of larger-than-life heroes, but one explicitly acknowledging how and why those heroes can stop being literally marvellous. Like the story’s central character, all of the comic’s creators hold superheroes near and dear to their hearts, which is exactly why they didn’t want to pull any punches as their story reckons with some difficult realities about obsessive hero worship.
Charles Pulliam-Moore, Gizmodo: These first two issues really emphasise how Astonishing Times’ heroes still represent hope to Noah, but also how the bulk of society’s become almost apathetic to them. Talk to me about where that apathy stems from, and how it affects the book’s heroes themselves.
Ruari Coleman: It’s one of our greatest strengths, as people, that we’re extremely adaptable. Take, for instance, the pandemic and how we had to adjust to massive shutdowns, working from home, and other restrictions; it was a shocking, life-altering change to how we’d existed up until then but — on the whole — we did it… to the point that a lot of people and businesses are now changing how they operate to accommodate working from home as a norm, post-pandemic.
However, a weakness of our adaptability is how quickly the extraordinary becomes mundane. Given enough time, we all become apathetic toward things that blew our minds just a short while before. Like, if you think about the leaps and bounds technology took over the latter half of the 20th century it’d blow your mind, but we now carry supercomputers around in our pockets and how often do we reflect on how improbable that was even 20 years ago? The world of Astonishing Times was designed to feel real, genuine, and lived in. The city might look extraordinary but it’s inhabited — for the vast majority — by regular people like you and I; and, chances are, if superheroes did exist in the real world, we’d get over them too eventually. It’s just human nature.
Frank J. Barbiere: When we were conceiving Astonishing Times, one of the points I was passionate about was the book being a celebration of superheroes, as I think in the real world we are experiencing a bit of superhero burnout. We’re looking at the 10-year anniversary of the MCU, and just a deluge of superhero stuff, so we figured now was the perfect time to embody that feeling of apathy and burnout into our story. Much like in the real world, people got over the initial shock of the superheroes and the excitement around them — now they’re just another part of the skyline. One thing we hint at later is that this apathy stems from so many of the world’s problems that are unable to be solved by people in costumes punching things — something both Noah and our superhero cast themselves have to reckon with.
Coleman: For the legacy heroes, it’s allowed them some anonymity again, which is great for someone like Kokin who likes to operate under the radar. This guy has comic books made about him but he’s kicking around downtown dressed like a bum and solving crimes. That’s pretty cool, until you look at the flip-side: an unidentified supervillain is picking off the world’s greatest heroes and nobody is batting an eye. It’s like the Joker says in The Dark Knight: it’s all part of the program for these regular civilians getting on with their lives — heroes die sometimes. Except what they don’t know is, this latest plot could have real, earth-shattering implications, and they’re all oblivious to it.
Gizmodo: It’s pretty clear that Noah believes that heroes can inspire hope, but I’m curious to hear more about what he believes actual journalism can do. So much of his characterization so far has been about his being a fan, but what kind of reporter is he?
Arris Quinones: Noah is someone that believes positivity and hope is contagious, and he thinks that if he can just get good information out about the heroes he loves so much, it’s bound to resonate with people. We kind of wanted to give him that personality where when you see someone excited about something that even if you don’t necessarily like that thing they’re excited and passionate about, you’re interested because of how passionate they are about it. He’s just a real earnest character and our whole goal was to make him the heart of the book.
Barbiere: At the beginning of our story, Noah isn’t really able to separate the deep love and connection (and rabid fandom) he feels versus actually telling important stories about the superheroes. He’s been coasting along trying to get people excited, but the main arc of Astonishing Times has him coming to terms with the real function of what he should be doing. To say any more might spoil the ending, haha, but while we didn’t want to paint Noah as overly naive, he will certainly gain a new insight into the stories he reports and what his function as a journalist actually serves. I’m very passionate about genre stories and their ability to actually have morals vs. just being fluff, and it’s something we really wanted to infuse into Noah’s arc.
Gizmodo: There’s a way that Noah’s reverence for heroes like Kokin blinds him to the sort of obvious danger that’s lurking around him. How is hero-worship going to factor into the story as Astonishing Times continues?
Barbiere: That’s the thing — Noah is letting his love and reverence for these characters blind him to some of the real, systemic issues of the world and function of superheroes. While we aren’t trying to deconstruct the genre with our book, we are looking to hopefully have our readers think a little more deeply about what value this genre has (which is a lot!) and look beyond the surface of superheroes just being cool people who punch things.
Coleman: Noah hero-worships his late father even more than the capes in Astonishing Times. I feel like he has been so focused on carrying on his father’s legacy that he’s never really taken a step back and assessed what journalism means to him, how he fits into this role, or if it’s even a career he would have chosen for himself if not for his father. In fact, meeting Kokin and being drawn into this murder mystery might even be Noah’s first true foray into investigative journalism and — as we saw in issue two — he might actually have a knack for it! So, really, through this initial arc of Astonishing Times, we’re on a journey of discovery with Noah as he uncovers more of this mystery with the murdered heroes and finds out for himself — possibly for the first time — what kind of reporter he is.
Gizmodo: The exchange between Noah and his editor in the second issue definitely reads like a reflection on the state of the actual genre entertainment reporting industry. As comics creators, what aspects of this space do you think are in need of deeper coverage from the press, and what shape might that coverage take?
Quinones: I personally would love to see more coverage on what went into making the comics — letting the creators tell their story of why they’re making the book they’re making. Essentially, how Hollywood movies do behind the scenes for the movies where they interviewed the actors, directors, and production crew telling you what happened along the way. I love that kind of stuff and would love to see more of it in the comic space.
Don’t get me wrong we do see that from time to time, but one of the main goals for us with Astonishing Times was to use Variant, the YouTube channel I host and co-created as a platform to show our audience everything that went into creating the book and take them along with us. Almost a step-by-step making the audience a part of our journey as well. And make no mistake the Variant Nation has been a huge part of Astonishing Times’ success. We have the best audience in the world. So I think the future of comic press could very well be using the digital space to show people more in-depth behind the scenes, whether that be through documentary-style videos like we’re doing or something else.
Barbiere: I have nothing but respect and admiration for comics press, as part of my success as a creator has been the promotion and time spent on my books from the press, as well as comics retailers. With print press obviously winding down in a lot of places, I think online outlets are doing a great job picking up the pace and finding new and exciting ways to engage with content. I think a lot of sites are digging deeper into human interest stories, issues creators deal with, and being bold with their content. Working with Arris and Variant has been an exciting new twist to the formula, as Variant is an amazing online platform with a fantastic audience. Working directly with him and Variant has been a huge boon and I think is a whole new way of showing some insight into how our book is made [and] why we think it’s important.
Gizmodo: Astonishing Times is releasing at a time when people are increasingly looking at platforms like Comixology and Substack as a means of getting their independent work out. What do you think is going to be really important for other creators to understand about working on these platforms, especially people looking to create entirely new worlds filled with traditional capes?
Barbiere: I’ve always been hesitant to create original superhero IP as I think so much of the audience traditionally has followed Marvel/DC. One of my favourite books of all time is Powers by [Brian Michael] Bendis and [Michael Avon] Oeming, and I swore to myself I wouldn’t want to put out a superhero book until I had an original take that I felt could service what I wanted to say.
That being said, I think the audience of comics is extremely savvy and largely has chosen to follow creators vs. characters — which is GREAT. Our current generation has a lot of talented creators, and with a more savvy audience who truly want to engage with them, no matter the platform, I think we are at an exciting precipice where creators have more options to tell stories and don’t need to be restrained by the traditional models of publishing.
Quinones: I think the best thing about working with a platform like Comixology from a creators’ perspective, and one of the reasons we are super excited to put our book out with them, is the fact pretty much anyone in the world can read your book this way as long as they have access to internet. It just allows the creators’ stories and books to be a lot more visible and obtainable by a wider audience of people who wouldn’t necessarily go to a comic shop. Don’t get me wrong; I love brick-and-mortar comic shops. They have a special place in my heart, and I think they’re a necessary element of the comic space as a whole. But one of the things I’ve learned from people over the years doing Variant is that a good chunk of comic fans unfortunately don’t have access to a local comic book shop. But again, with Comixology, all you need is a smartphone, tablet, or computer and an Internet connection and you could read our story.
Coleman: I’m completely unfamiliar with Substack; I keep meaning to look into it but I immediately get distracted because the name sounds like a chain of sandwich shops… then, before I know it, I find myself thinking about sandwiches and I start to feel hungry and wander off to the fridge and — wait, what were we talking about?
Astonishing Times hits Comixology on September 28, 2021.