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Joshua Hale Fialkov Talks 'Life After,' Owning Work and Digital Comics

The creator shares an exclusive preview of his new Oni Press series, and talks about his influences, why he's taking a break from super hero comics and why Ernest Hemingway is his new hero.

The Life After Cover - P 2014
Nick Pitarra/Oni Press

The first issue of Joshua Hale Fialkov and Gabo’s new series, The Life After, hit comic book stores and digital storefronts Wednesday, introducing readers to its hero, Jude and the hauntingly strange world in which he lives—or, more correctly, doesn’t live. Prepare for spoilers and an exclusive look at the series’ second issue.

As the end of the debut issue revealed, Jude (and everyone else in the series) is actually dead as the result of suicide, something that he wasn’t aware of. That the truth was revealed to him by Ernest Hemingway may give some idea of the tone of this surprising, beautiful new series that definitely isn’t what you’d expect given the subject matter.

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“I’ve learned over time that a lighter touch on heavier material can make something hard to take considerably easier, and this is a book about big, weighty things,” Fialkov told THR of the upbeat tone of the book. “By taking a more whimsical, funny approach, I think even people who resolutely disagree with the viewpoints of the story can find something to latch on to.”

The writer pointed to novelist Kurt Vonnegut as an influence, saying that he remembers reading Cat’s Cradle as a teenager and “realizing that there was a place in the world for the type of stories I wanted to write, and in the style that I wanted to write them. I think that Vonnegut’s sense of self is so well stamped on his work that he is the books he wrote. That’s something that, while certainly, all of my books come from a personal place, there’s also a bit of distance between me the person and me the storyteller. This is a book that comes straight out of my brain with very little internal editing before it hits the script page. It deals with scary, big ideas, but, I think, it deals with them the way I’ve always wanted to deal with them.”

The Life After, like his critically-acclaimed The Bunker, is a concept he created and controls, with artist Gabo (Independent company Oni Press publishes both series), something that Fialkov appreciates after spending the last five years working on characters owned by Marvel and DC.

“I’m a trouble maker as an employee,” he admits, saying that he’s taking “a sort of self-imposed exile” from working on company-owned superheroes for awhile. “I want to treat every book I do as though it’s 100% owned by me, because, at the end of the day, nobody is blaming an editor if that book sucks. They’re blaming me. Even if the art is sub-par, I take the blame for that. So, for my money, being thorny and vocal to get work I’m proud of is worth it, no matter what doors it shuts, because, as the saying goes, nothing shuts doors and costs you audience faster than producing junk.”

Not that the opportunity to work on titles like Ultimate FF, I, Vampire and Adventures of Superman wasn’t fun, he hastens to add. “Look, getting to make Wolverine talk or Batman growl or Superman go through a time hole to team up with Kamandi is an absolute joy,” he said. “Every time I write a Spidey joke or an Iron Man smart-ass comment is, honestly a pleasure. But, it’s a specific itch, and I’ve spent the past three or four years scratching it. Creator owned is completely different.”

A common argument for working on company-owned superheroes over creator-owned material is an economic one, but Fialkov said that he’s “made just about as much money doing The Bunker as I did working on the Marvel and DC stuff, and, there hasn’t been a single bad moment doing it. So, you look at the two paths, and, at least for right now and very much for me, it seems pretty clear which one is to be followed.”

The writer is equally passionate about the growing digital comics market, which comes as no surprise considering the digital origins of The Bunker. “The future is digital, definitely,” he said. “But, there’s a reason everyone keeps saying ‘the future’ rather than ‘the present.’ We’re still not quite there.”

The success of The Bunker, which receives its first print collection next month, didn’t come easily, he explained. “I pretty much worked on it 24/7 for the four or five months that we ran it digitally, and we made money, certainly, but, not quite enough to support the workload for [artist Joe Infurnari] and I,” he said. “Had we not made the strides on the media side, we would’ve been in a lot of trouble, but I can almost guarantee that had we not published how we did, we would have had even more trouble selling the ancillary rates, which, like I said, is what has made it so lucrative for us.”

For now, though, Fialkov is focusing on personal work like The Bunker and The Life After—which brings us back to the question, how did Ernest Hemingway end up in this series, anyway?

“I’m a huge fan of the Philip Jose Farmer Riverworld series that takes a bunch of historical figures and puts them in a completely bizarre and confusing new world,” he explained. “The way that the short hand of who they are helps to sell that story was a huge influence on me. The list of people who could populate the afterlife for suicides and rise above the control of the powers that be is a very short list, and while we were crafting a character it would keep coming back to, ‘Someone like Ernest Hemingway.’ And then we realized, “Oh, right, it can just be Hemingway.”

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Looking ahead to the second issue of The Life After—which you can get a sneak preview of below—Fialkov said that one of his favorite things about the project is the way that every subsequent issue “reframes the story that we’re reading,” something he attributes in part to the work of his artist on the series, Gabo.

“Issue 2 was the first time that happened for me. I saw his pages and I just knew that he’d come up with better stuff than I had planned, and, so the book morphed into something else,” he said. “Gabo has such an amazing vitality to his work, and his sense of wonder remains fully in check, despite, y’know, being an adult. I think that’s something a lot of us lose, that he’s managed to really hang on to. His imagination and sense of humor are stamped all over the book. The paths we walk together on this book are just a complete and utter delight. I can’t wait to see where we go next.”

The Life After No. 1 was released in comic stores and digitally this week. The second issue will be released in August, but below you get to see the first five pages. It’s almost worth dying for.