How Mental Health Struggles Inspired 'Halt and Catch Fire' Co-Creator's New Comic

She Could Fly Cover - Publicity - P 2018
Courtesy of Martin Morazzo/Dark Horse Comics
Christopher Cantwell reveals the origins of 'She Could Fly,' a personal tale about a 15-year-old who finds solace in a mysterious flying woman.

She Could Fly is sure to attract attention when it launches in July.

The Dark Horse comic from AMC's Halt and Catch Fire co-creator Christopher Cantwell is a personal one, partially inspired by mental health struggles he only recently began speaking about publicly. She Could Fly follows Luna, a 15-year-old girl with mental health issues who finds solace in a mysterious flying woman who keeps appearing in the media. But when the woman dies on live television, it’s a sign that Luna’s world, as unsteady as it already was, is about to change even more.

Martin Morazzo illustrates She Could Fly, which comes from Dark Horse imprint Berger Books, a line of comics curated and edited by Karen Berger, who helped bring The Sandman to life and created DC Entertainment’s Vertigo imprint.

A month out from the series debut, Heat Vision spoke to Cantwell about its origins and how much of himself has bled into his comic book debut.

It feels like there’s at least two different stories being told here. Which came first: Luna, or the Flying Woman? 

This story has a bunch of starting points, actually. The first part of this idea goes all the way back to 2001 when I had just finished my freshman year at USC Film School. I had gotten an internship at Marvel Studios for the summer, my first Hollywood gig ever, and it was my dream job.

Back then, it was just four small offices in Century City. Kevin Feige was 28, Avi Arad was still there, Chris Yost [Thor: The Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok, Star Wars Rebels] was the head of the R&D "comic vault" and my boss, and we shared the space with a bunch of kite salesmen from Spectra-Star, because Marvel was still owned by ToyBiz then. [Sam] Raimi’s Spider-Man was in production, and there was a secret treatment for X-Men 2 locked in a file cabinet somewhere.

Anyway, that summer, I stayed with my girlfriend in her cheap-o apartment that had no A/C, so my parents bought me a really nice vintage rotating fan that was metal. I was kind of fascinated with it over those months, before it broke. Sophomore year, I had the comic bug from my time at Marvel and came up with an idea about a woman who was able to rig a rotating fan to her back and control it with her cerebral cortex. This ultimately ended up as a discarded idea in a file folder labeled "Human Fan." There it sat for the next 16 years, until I took little scraps of it and wove them into a completely new story that I had the good fortune of pitching to Karen in 2017.

By then, I had been a part of writing the storyline of teenage Haley Clark in the final season of Halt and Catch Fire. Doing that — plus seeing it come alive with Susanna Skaggs' brilliantly vulnerable performance — was one of the most rewarding things about our TV series’ conclusion for me, because it was so far afield from where Halt had started years previous. And in writing it, I was able to bring a lot of elements of my teenage self to Haley. But then, the story concluded, and I no longer had a teenage heroine to write for, so I decided to try to figure out a new one.

And that’s how I came upon Luna, in whom I was able to channel even more of my adolescent angst, including my more serious mental illness episodes I experienced back then, which I had never written about before, and only very recently — like 2016 — finally opened up about with mental health professionals and, even scarier, my parents.

Was there any nervousness about telling Luna’s story in the way that you’re handling it? Depictions of mental illness in pop culture media are complicated and difficult things, and there’s a boldness and honesty in the way the reader gets to see what Luna is imagining — and terrified of — that feels surprising, if not shocking. Did you do research into the subject when thinking about how best to show us what Luna’s world is like?

My short answer is: certainly! The research part for me was easy in a way, as I have suffered from this type of OCD — called Pure O or Primarily Obsessional OCD — since I was about 10 years old. I absolutely agree that mental illness depictions can be problematic if they feel slapped on. But I have an intensely personal connection to this one since I’ve suffered from it largely in private for most of my life. I only received a proper diagnosis at the age of 35 — well into my work on Halt, and when I was already married with kids — because I finally was able to overcome my shame and fear in talking about it. I actually had to, because the most recent episode was so bad that it was debilitating my life.

This was shortly after the completion of season three of Halt, and I was just a mess. Pure O is very different than other types of OCD most people are aware of — largely because of Hollywood depictions — in that it doesn’t externally manifest in very obvious ways to others around the person who has it. We all remember Monk and his delightfully charming OCD. I actually loved that show, but OCD can be incredibly torturous in any form.

With Pure O, it’s really a constant barrage of disturbing images and thoughts that just repeat in your head over and over again, while you try to keep a plastic smile on your face for those around you and you try not to melt down completely. I had my most severe episodes at 10, 11, 12 and 13, then again at 22, and then again at 35. I dealt with them all privately, except for the last one, and it was incredibly hard on me as a kid. When you’re that age, and you just imagine infinite manifestations of killing your parents over and over again and can’t stop, you really freak out.

But my diagnosis was a watershed moment in my life, and it felt like I was finally able to move forward with this condition in some way, instead of just suppressing it until it reared its ugly head again. And that’s when I finally began considering its portrayal in some way in my work. So in a way, Luna is going through exactly what I went through around that age. And I’ll admit, it’s been scary writing her story, and difficult at times. When I saw Martin’s vivid depictions of what I’d written, it made me anxious in that old and very familiar way. The important thing to keep in mind is that Luna’s thoughts are egodystonic — meaning she doesn’t derive pleasure from them and instead finds them horrifying and frightening and relentless. In terms of comic detail, this even boils down to the expressions on her face when she imagines terrible things — no smiles or joy, just wide-eyed terror at what she’s imagining doing.

Still, I’ve had moments privately where I’ve confessed to my wife that I’m scared everyone in the world will think I’m a horrible and a broken, insane human being when they read She Could Fly, and I will lose absolutely everything I hold dear. This doomsday scenario, of course, is a yet another symptom of my own OCD condition.

For decades now — Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns are seen as forerunners of this, but you can see it in 1970s Marvel and even earlier — there’s been a move to humanize superhero narratives. There’s definitely some of this in She Could Fly; what I kept going back to in the first issue was Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ Marvels, but also the “Game of You” storyline in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman — stories that are very kind and empathetic towards their leads, and look at the impact the magical/supernatural/unusual have on regular people. Was that kind of thing in your mind when writing this?

I absolutely wanted to ground the fantastic in the real modern world and see how something outrageous would affect a regular teenager and her family. In a way, I think that type of thing is happening on a daily basis in America and abroad — an insane presidency, pictures of skeletal polar bears on little melting floats of ice, advances in private space exploration, the confounding ideas behind cryptocurrency, even that amazing guy in France who scaled the condo balconies in 20 seconds and saved that dangling 4-year-old. It’s just every day at this point that we all read or hear about something nuts.

And all of these stories are imperfect, with lots of complexities and nuance and motivations and personal baggage, and it gets fatiguing trying to wrap your head around it all. Sometimes we just feel numb and saturated with bizarre events, and we end up just having to deal with them in a practical, mundane way to move ahead in life. That is very much the world of She Could Fly, and that’s how all the characters are grappling with this latest strange phenomenon of a woman in the sky.

A big inspiration for me is Jim Starlin’s Silver Surfer, which is my all-time favorite comic book. Starlin brought a sense of the above to that spacefaring series that I just loved. The cosmos felt like this big, black, depressive weird chaos in Silver Surfer’s life. It was like, "Yeah, I’m in space, it looks awesome, what the fuck is going on? Who am I? I hate this." I loved reading that existential crisis stuff while I sat in Dillard’s department store and my mom tried on shoes in the summer of ‘91.

Grant Morrison’s New X-Men felt a little like this, too. And this may sound weird, but the bargain basement fuck-up nature of the spy work in the original Get Smart TV show definitely influenced the bumbling nature of the physicists and defense contractors behind the technology in She Could Fly.

You’ve obviously got the background in terms of reading them, but why comics as a creator? What brought you to Berger Books? 

Comics are a perfect medium for portraying internal thoughts and visions, and as you pointed out, the story is very much a post-modern take on the classic comic book trope of flying through the air. As the story coalesced in my head, I was in Toronto to speak at a screenwriting conference, and afterward, I participated in the March for Science there. And I listened to all these speakers, some of whom were these incredible, radical, 21st-century teenage voices, and I thought, “Man, I really should tell this story.”

So I reached out on Twitter to G. Willow Wilson, who writes Ms. Marvel. We had been mutual fans of each other for a time online — and she had even taken me to task at one point for how much the female protagonists of Halt had cried onscreen in season two — and I just asked her advice. I said I had one idea that seemed like a comic book, and asked how I should go about it. She turned around and immediately put me in touch with Karen Berger. It was incredibly gracious and led to this wonderful opportunity, which has been a dream come true.

I was heavily into comics throughout my adolescence, and it was so great to lose myself in these worlds when I was having OCD troubles. The same was true when I came to L.A. for college, and I was a stranger in a strange land. I spent hours alone at Golden Apple and Hi De Ho in Santa Monica. Comics have helped me adjust in difficult periods. So working with Karen, Martin, [colorist] Miroslav [Mrva], [letterer] Clem [Robbins] and the folks at Dark Horse is just next-level for me.

You’ve mentioned Martin Morazzo a couple of times now, and what he brings to the book. His artwork really brings the characters to life. Where did he come from? Did Berger present him to you as, "This is the guy"?

His artwork, especially in the later issues, just takes my breath away. And he is such a positive voice in our collaboration. I was unfamiliar with most of the cutting-edge artists working now when Karen and I first started talking. She turned me on to his work in Occupy Avengers, Electric Sublime and The Great Pacific, and when I saw it, I knew he could bring something special to this story. Every email from Martin containing new pencils or inks is like opening a present on Christmas morning. By the way, everyone should read Ice Cream Man [Morazzo’s Image Comics series with writer W. Maxwell Prince]. It’s like The Twilight Zone, but even more unnerving.

The first issue hints at a deeper mythology for the series, and the mystery of the Flying Woman, but also stories outside of that altogether, touching on Luna’s world — what’s happening with her grandmother, what her therapist is feeling. It reminds me of the way that Halt and Catch Fire was filled with all these wonderful, fascinating human stories once you dove deeper into the primary narrative. Can you imagine exploring all these different stories in future series?

One hundred percent. Luna is at the fore of this story, but I love writing for an ensemble. That was tremendously rewarding work in Halt and Catch Fire. Every character in She Could Fly is meant to be explored further in some way. My grandmother came to live with us when I was Luna’s age, and she was very ill, and it really disrupted the family dynamic, so the series will explore that. And Kido has been diving deep into Zen, which I have, too, largely to combat my OCD. OCD is a very ego-centric disease, and Zen pursues an egolessness. Kido is engaged in a similar struggle. Dana, Luna’s guidance counselor, will also become a bigger part of the story, for sure — more than you’d expect.

Chris Rogers and I always tackled Halt as a story about a family of choice, bound by a common cause. In Halt’s case, it was computers and tech. In She Could Fly, all these disparate characters become tangled up with each other through the mystery of the Flying Woman. It’s another family of choice story.

So what lies ahead in the next few issues of the series? What can you tease for those curious about the book?

I will say that Luna’s mental illness won’t be the only one explored. Almost every character is a little unhinged in some way, and that will all bubble to the surface as the plot heats up. And we’ll be portraying some marvelous and bizarre surreality that one can only do in comic books. We’ll go deeper into the Flying Woman’s story — who she was and why she did what she did. And you know, things will get violent. There’s a lot at stake for some of these people when it comes to that valuable technology, and it’ll get messy.

But ultimately, I think the story — as intense as it might get — is a beautiful one, and dare I say spiritual. This is Luna’s coming of age overall. Coming of age is one of the most difficult things we do as human beings.

She Could Fly launches July 11 with a 32-page first issue, and is available for pre-order now.